The upscale market-cafe craze is in the midst of another Philly flux, with some exciting new offerings on the scene (Talula's Daily, Tela's Market & Kitchen) to balance some oldies on the wane, including the Garces Trading Co. (a bar has replaced the market counter) and the recently rebranded Fork Etc.
I initially wondered why co-owner Ellen Yin felt compelled to replace that convenient special-event space and take-out annex to Fork. But my hesitations about High Street on Market, chef Eli Kulp's more ambitious follow-up (Etc.'s own etcetera?), evaporated with one bite of the Red Eye Danish. The pastry was a wonder round of flaky delicacy topped with silky pink folds of shaved Benton's country ham and a grated Gruyère snow. But it was the swirl of creamy coffee "gravy" tucked inside - infused with ham drippings and coffee, it was more like a luxurious custard - that snapped my eyes open. Wow.
That sensation of awakening to something I didn't previously know I needed is one I felt repeatedly in my visits to High Street. From the lunch sandwich topped with duck meatballs in spicy marinara with creamy Venetian liver mousse, to baker Alex Bois' extraordinary rustic breads, to a morning bialy, tinted pumpernickel-black with squid ink, then stuffed with house-smoked whitefish, eating at High Street was a continual parade of pleasant surprises.
Such cheffed-up creations have been a shock to some habitues of the Etc.'s more mundane pleasures.
"I used to go in each weekday and spend less than $5. Usually a scone and coffee or a bagel with cream cheese," one disgruntled reader wrote to me, lamenting also the disappearance of French toast. "Esoteric squared," he said.
Had he started his day with the aptly named Trip to the Chinese Doctor, I could understand. This cocktail uses two elements I love individually - juiced broccoli rabe and mescal. Combined, they make a demon brew so bitter and smoked, it would grow chest hair on a kale martini.
It was one of the few missteps at High Street on Market. But true to character, it was veggie-focused and bold - a word that best defines Yin's willingness to push the evolution of her already-well-loved restaurants to greater heights.
There are plenty of accessible breakfast flavors, such as baked oatmeal or house-made ginger yogurt. But Yin no longer has much interest in competing for scone and French toast dollars because she has in Kulp a chef capable of plowing new earth. And she has succeeded: The dining-in-focused High Street is now less a convenient appendage to Fork than a distinct entity unto itself. Considerably more relaxed and less expensive than Fork, but with the same commitment to craft and quality, outstanding service and drinks, it in many ways sets a new Philly standard for what a casual breakfast-through-dinner concept can be. One can graze through sharing plates, or let the kitchen send out eight plates for $45 per person.
A focus on grains - many of them locally sourced - is what most defines the menu, anchored by the crusty molasses-cracked corn sweetness of Anadama; malt butter-glazed potato rolls; a vivid rye for the peppery, house-made pastrami; and a levain bread marbled with the sweet char of roasted "vegetable ash." Even one of the drink list's more outstanding cocktails, Of the Farm, uses an apple brandy that has been steeped with buttered rye toast, lending subtle richness (and grainy spice) to counter the tart apple shrub mixer - a tangy nod to the colonial era when Market Street was known as High.
Not surprising, given Kulp's history at Torrisi Italian Specialties, the pasta menu is noteworthy - though with a deliberately non-Italian bent. My favorites were the hand-rolled garganelli quills infused with matcha green tea sauced with the crumbles of a ground ragu of smoked duck. But the corzetti was close behind, the beet-purple circles of stamped dough topped with marinated sardines, creamy fresh cheese, and crushed hazelnuts, a seemingly random combination that was a perfect harmony of contrasting textures, piquancy, and earthy sweetness.
Two other pastas - the buckwheat orecchiette with crawfish in spicy oil, and the seaweed bucatini - were almost great. The orecchiette missed the fried okra that had accidentally been omitted. The bucatini, a hollow-tubed black pasta that looked like licorice whips beneath the orange petals of shaved lobster roe bottarga, was too mild in its briny punch.
A lack of intense flavors was rarely an issue at High Street, where fermentation is a kitchen obsession, from the fermented eggplant and okra chow-chow that lends spicy zing to the deep-fried broccoli, to the housemade miso that infuses the corn-succotash butter, and also crackles with nutritional yeast on the dehydrated kale chips. A kimchi-style fermented parsley-mint vinaigrette adds punchy spark to the richly marbled Wagyu short rib, served as an irresistible sharing platter with a salad of roasted Brussels sprouts and crispy tater-tot-shaped rice cakes.
That rib was the best piece of beef I've eaten in months - and one of several unusual ingredients Kulp revels in serving. Another was a huge pork shank, a sharing entree served over a wooden bowl of cracked-corn porridge scattered with crumbles of liver sausage ragu. The cider-braised mallet of meat was so yielding, it shimmered with juice at the touch of a fork, then fell apart.
Amazingly tender strips of deep-fried razor clams were among the unusual seafood delights, served with a habañero-piqued buttermilk mayo dip. A tiny glass cup of shrimp braised in lemon and surprising nutmeg were startlingly good when smeared with creamy foie gras atop bread crisps sprinkled with toasted shellfish dust. My biggest revelation, though, was the grilled striped-bass "collar," a meaty slice from between the head and gills usually discarded in Western kitchens, that turns out to be packed with incredibly moist flesh - amped here by a Thai-style marinade of long hot peppers and sliced razor clams.
A plate of dehydrated beets is given a meaty depth charge from the rendered fat of dry-aged beef. Mustard oil ignites rabbit confit and chestnut puree. A virtuosic medley of exotic mushrooms - fried maitakes, roasted royal trumpets, powdered black trumpets, and intense cream of mushroom soup - turn shaved white rounds of humble button mushrooms into unexpectedly vivid, earthy coins.
With so many fascinating flavors at play, manager Paul Rodriguez has assembled a drink program that is extremely focused yet exciting, from the unusual cocktails to outstanding spirits (Angel's Envy; Germain Robin) and wines focused on coveted small European producers (Arianna Occhipinti; Lemasson Poivre et Sel Pineau d'Aunis) focused on lesser-known grapes and terroir.
By meal's end, with a bittersweet digestif of herbal Fernet Vallet from Mexico in hand, I scarcely had room for the earthy buckwheat crumb cake studded with pear. The refreshing "fall sundae," though, was another story: a scoop of buttermilk ice cream tiered with maple syrup sorbet, crunchy walnuts, candied fennel fronds, and diced apples compressed with applejack in cider caramel.
If that's "esoteric squared," I'm digging in.
Chef Eli Kulp discusses High Street on Market at www.inquirer.com/labanreviews. Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan hosts an online chat at 2 p.m. Tuesdays at www.inquirer.com/labanchats.