Monday, December 29, 2014

LaBan review: Fork

Bay scallop crudo, with kimchi-fermented parsley and beet-pickled turnips.
Bay scallop crudo, with kimchi-fermented parsley and beet-pickled turnips. ED HILLE / Staff
Bay scallop crudo, with kimchi-fermented parsley and beet-pickled turnips. Gallery: LaBan review: Fork
Craig LaBan Reviews Fork Video: Craig LaBan Reviews Fork
About the restaurant
306-308 Market St.
Philadelphia, PA 19106
215-625-9425
Rating:
Neighborhood: Old City Parking: Validated parking $6.50 in the Bourse Parking Garage (400 Ranstead St.)
Handicap access: Wheelchair acccessible.
Hours: Lunch Wednesday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Dinner Monday-Thursday, 5:30-10 p.m.; Friday, tiil 10:30 p.m.; Saturday, 5-10:30 p.m.; Sunday, 5-9:30 p.m. Sunday brunch, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
Reservations: Recommended
Open Table
Prices: $$$
Payment notes: All major cards.
Payment methods:
American Express
Discover
MasterCard
Visa
Cuisine type: American
Meals Served: Brunch - Sat., Sun. Lunch - Mon., Tue., Wed., Thu., Fri. Dinner - Mon. thru Sun.
Style: Proprietor Ellen Yin has done the improbable: recovered from losing a star chef by recruiting New York talent Eli Kulp, whose spectacular whole-animal feasts and Italian- inflected fare has actually made Fork even better. Add a gorgeous new mural (painted by longtime waiter Anthony DeMelas), ever-stellar service, and a smart drink program, and Fork remains one of Philly's best all-purpose grown-up restaurants - but one now with potential to someday reach even greater heights.
Specialties: Trout caviar; chicken nuggets; scallop crudo with parsley kimchi; kale salad; mozzarella with cured melon; the roots salad; crab-apple soup; smoked pumpkin tortelloni; "burnt-grain" pappardelle with wild boar ragu; pistachio agnolotti with rabbit; Wagyu short- rib feast; duck feast; branzino en croute; skate; lobster; porchetta sandwich (lunch); lemon semifreddo with thyme meringue; chocolate cake; cheese plate.
Alcohol: Fork manages to fit more great bottles on a page than most restaurants can achieve in a book - and with a focus on true value. The Eurocentric list features small producers from sometimes-obscure regions, but food-friendly quality, whether a Font Mars Picpoul de Pinet or Giraudon Bourgogne-Chitry by the glass, a surprising Pinnacle Ridge rose sparkler from Kutztown, or a fantastic bottle of Sicilian Leone white. Numerous choices at $50 or less, with a reserve list worth the prices. There's a small but decent beer selection, and a revamped cocktail list energized by some unusual naturalist mixers (celery water, peach bitters).
Weekend noise: Still boisterous at 85 decibels, but tame enough to maintain a conversation. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)

I usually don't get worked up over leftovers. This is especially true of remainders from old places I've come to know well over more than a decade of visits.

But around midnight after my first visit to the most recent incarnation of Fork, I opened the fridge to peek into my take-home bag before heading to bed - and let out a primal howl: "Where's my bone?"

This was no ordinary bone, mind you. This was the epic blade that arrived like a sled at our table, bearing luscious slices of an enormous Wagyu short rib. Billed as one of chef Eli Kulp's sharing "feasts," this $100 production lived up to its name, perched on a boogie-board-size plank beside tiny, house-baked "Weck" rolls crusted with caraway (for DIY sandwiches), sweet-and-chewy strips of Wagyu jerky, deep-fried pickled onion rings, tiny fingerling sweet potatoes with sage and walnut - and that meat. It was deeply charred with a crust of coriander and black pepper, and ruby rare inside, and my eyes flapped open with pleasure as each luxuriously marbled slice melted away when I bit down.

That I planned to gnaw that rib at a future date was a foregone conclusion: "The best part!" server Anthony DeMelas agreed as he whisked it away for packing.

The restaurant was appropriately beyond apologetic when I called to learn (gasp!) it had accidentally been tossed - offering a bill adjustment (I declined). It was hard to remain peeved. After all, DeMelas, also an accomplished painter, has helped transform the dining room with two gorgeous murals that add a warm new depth to the space with the image of a birchwood forest.

The real "problem" here is that Kulp's food is just so hauntingly good. For those who legitimately worried when proprietor Ellen Yin lost Terence Feury, the star chef who brought Fork its third bell, rest assured: His successor, a veteran of New York hot spots like Del Posto, Casa Lever, and Torrisi Italian Specialties, is a serious talent. And with his arrival, Yin has managed the improbable, taking a 15-year-old citywide favorite and reinventing it as something even better - current and fresh, yet sophisticated in a grown-up way so many new restaurants just can't muster.

There are few crews anywhere that can match the polish of Yin's veteran service staff, from DeMelas to charming Nate Mell to Danielle Jamrozy, who effortlessly relayed every detail of the menu and wine list. She guided us to the lovely Sicilian white Leone d'Almerita, a lesser-known Euro gem that's typical of Fork's outstanding wine list - a midsize model for well-curated quality and value.

But Kulp alone is worth the visit. His background at Italian restaurants figures prominently, especially in some stunning pastas, from delicate tortelloni filled with lightly smoked pumpkin (to cut the sweetness) and scattered with crunchy walnuts, to agnolotti stuffed with vivid-green pistachio beneath tender shreds of rabbit confit, and a wild-boar-and-olive ragu tossed over deep-brown "burnt-grain" pappardelle.

Made from grains that are deliberately burned before being milled and rolled into dough, and inspired by Sicilian peasants who would pick over fields that were burned down after harvest, the dish - incredibly earthy - is typical of the "story foods" here that were a standby on Kulp's menus at Torrisi, where every dish has a backstory.

"The roots" salad is a nod to the acclaimed Philadelphia band - not to mention an extraordinary medley of root veggies tossed in pear vinaigrette beside roasted sunchokes rolled in black trumpet powder, like trompe-l'oeil truffles. The sweet, house-made cream cheese, served with mini-bialys, is an ode to the famed Philadelphia brand and is steeped with local hay to mark the seasons (in warmer weather, they use grass). The "crab-apple" soup is a play on words gone right, an island of sweet Peekytoe salad surrounded by a creamy broth of apples and cauliflower dusted with powdered bay. The gorgeously orange lobster poached in butter and reduced carrot is really an opportunity to talk about the ethereally delicate white celery from Manheim's Hodecker Farms, which, matched with lemon puree and mashed sunchokes, is a magical pairing.

Other dishes were notable for their novel techniques - the kimchi-fermented parsley added just the right spicy twang to accent the sublime sweetness of bay scallop crudo; a finely shaved rectangle of house-baked Pullman loaf adhered to a fillet of branzino with egg white for the perfect butter-toasted crust. The addition of tiny shaved cracklings to the tender porchetta sandwich made it irresistible. And Kulp's clever fruit-leather treatment of melons - shaved cantaloupe and watermelon salted and dehydrated - transformed them into ingenious vegan prosciutto alongside a milky ball of buffalo mozzarella.

I loved so many of my meals here, I see for the first time four-bell potential in Fork's future. But the desserts, overly obsessed with savory intrusions like charred eggplant in the chocolate cake or cayenne spice in the fig ice cream, need to be rethought. And the menu's myriad options should be simplified - with small-bites, a traditional a la carte section, a four-course "house menu" for $65, plus whole-animal feasts that throw supplements onto the prix-fixe so complex you'll need an accountant to get your bearings.

It's as simple as this: Kulp's feasts, which can be the centerpiece for two to three diners, should not be missed. The whole duck for $88, presented head-on then deconstructed in the kitchen into various parts and preparations, was among the greatest birds I've ever eaten. Aged for a week, then prepped Chinatown-style (blown up with tire pump, dipped in boiling vinegar water, rubbed with baking powder, then lacquered for three days in maltose), the roasted-then-seared breast meat was profoundly flavorful and encased in Sichuan peppercorn-dusted skin as crisp and sweet as Asian candy. The hearts were grilled medium rare and sliced thin with duck prosciutto into salad. Morsels of confit were tossed with fresh croutons and broccoli rabe. The rest of the legs, then, were ground with cream-soaked bread into tender meatballs simmered in a Venetian agrodolce enriched with liver. From now on, all my meatballs shall be made from duck.

Just as I was thinking this final meal couldn't be better, my old waiter DeMelas appeared beside me bearing an extra plate: a giant roasted short-rib bone! No ordinary bone, mind you, but an epic blade of Wagyu rib, festooned with strips of buttery meat and cucumbers tossed in minted lime for a Thai salad. It was, no doubt, the greatest comeback I've ever seen from a restaurant miscue.

Then again, Fork is the rare old restaurant that really needs no comeback at all. It simply keeps getting better.

 


Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Khmer Kitchen. Contact him at claban@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @CraigLaBan.

Craig LaBan Inquirer Restaurant Critic
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