It is rare enough in these days of Twitter-fickle tastes for a trend-setting restaurant to remain on the radar long.
But a trend-setter from the previous millennium? That sounds like a relic ready for the history bins of Wikipedia.
So the news that Fork, the pioneering Old City bistro, has suddenly hit its stride after a dozen years and recently emerged as one of Philly's most exciting and relevant reservations is a pleasant shock indeed.
The surprise arrival of Terence Feury in February has been the major difference-maker here. And the chef who once plied the rarefied waters of the now-struggling world of haute cuisine (his previous stops have closed: Maia, Striped Bass, and Ritz-Carlton Grill) has unpacked his artisan bag of tricks in Fork's more-relaxed bistro setting with stunning results.
The platter of expertly house-made charcuterie is enough to catch an eater's attention, from its creamy mash of duck rillettes to the garlicky porchetta tinged with rosemary smoke, and deep-purple strips of cured duck prosciutto edged with ivory fat that sings on the tongue as it melts.
But that's just for starters. Feury's crew, including nine cooks from the recently shuttered Maia, deliver vividly flavored, hand-crafted delights on every dish. From the pristine treatment of a majestic whole Cape May fluke (bronzed in the pan and served over silky artichoke veloute) to the intense adventure of lamb belly confit to the sublime comfort of a warm pear-pignoli tart with rosemary caramel, there was hardly a false note in three meals.
My sudden enthusiasm isn't a reflection of any serious sins of the plate in Fork's past as much as an acknowledgment of its previous culinary limitations. And I'm thrilled to see hard-working co-owner Ellen Yin's vision for the New American bistro, where sophisticated urban dining thrives without too much upscale starch, finally meet the cook who can bring it to its full potential.
From the crusty, house-baked breads to the excellent desserts (creamy chèvre cheesecake with rum-roasted pineapples; a serious cookie plate; and a knock-out chocolate-macadamia brittle torte), this kitchen now serves up a complete package.
Even in Fork's formative days, though, this stylish bistro set the tone early for grown-up dining in Old City when Yin and her partners, Roberto Sella and opening chef Anne-Marie Lasher, launched in 1997. And it has remained one of the neighborhood's old reliables, with a convivial front bar, an appealing prepared-foods market next door (Fork: Etc.), a smart value-centric Euro wine list, and a handsome dining room designed by Marguerite Rodgers with understated chic (quilted tall-back banquettes, swag velvet curtains, hand-painted fabric lamps, and an open kitchen) that is one of the city's most enduring restaurant spaces.
But Fork's success so far has always been more about a prescient concept and Yin's professionalism than particularly memorable cooking. Its handful of previous chefs worked with muted consistency: My meals were always good, but rarely great.
So Yin had an opportunity for an upgrade when her latest chef left in February. And this surprise match with Feury, suddenly available as ill-fated Maia entered its death-spiral, has been golden.
For the supremely talented Feury, the more-manageable Fork is a chance at redemption and long-term success. And the restaurant's mid-size scale (overall, about a third the size of Maia's 400-plus seats) has allowed him to immerse himself in the joys of hands-on cookery with a greater efficiency of costs. And he claims the quality compromises have been few as he steps down from the league of $35 entrees into the mid-$20s.
I'll have to agree. Few restaurants in town right now can match Fork for fine dining value, given the vibrantly crafted flavors I've tasted here of late.
The homemade charcuterie offers a sampling of the old-school artisan updates this kitchen is capable of, from the coarsely-ground cervelat salami with pistachios and garlic to the clove-scented pâté. The house "tapas" platter gives a taste of a few others, including a masterful apple-wood-smoked salmon folded over cubes of dilled potato salad, and wild mushrooms à la Grecques poached in warm mushroom oil, then tanged with Champagne vinegar.
Feury's renowned way with seafood is on full display. His distinctively light touch always elegantly frames the quality of his ingredients, from the sweet Carolina bay scallops poached in tarragon butter over delicate homemade capellini with pickled cherry peppers, to a meaty slice of crispy striped bass posed over spring pea puree with cumin-scented carrot relish, and a luscious lump crab salad threaded with basil and lighted by the exotic brightness of a lemongrass gelee.
His affinity for cooking meat, though, is no less impressive. Experiments with a vintage smoker have been especially fruitful, particularly with an amazingly tender and fragrant smoked-brisket sandwich, and a still-juicy pork chop that paired with a decadent terrine of soft potato wrapped in crispy bacon.
For adventure diners, though, Feury's lamb belly confit is one the city's new must-taste plates. Cured two weeks in garlic, salt and rosemary, then slow-poached in lamb fat and olive oil, the finished product is an encounter with the ultimate savory mille-feuille. Its myriad layers of roasty-edged, gamey meat and buttery molten fat dissolve on the tongue as the absolute essence of lamb. Add a pickled fan of sliced lamb's tongue, grilled artichokes, and glossy dabs of black olive jus, and you have a Mediterranean lamb epic on a plate.
Adventurous flavors also define the weekly changing menus of the four-course bistro dinners each Wednesday night at the communal table next door at Fork: Etc. These fixed-price meals have featured whole monkfish tails, suckling pigs, saffron-yellow local goose eggs soft-scrambled with the Moroccan spice of house-made merguez sausage, and amazingly primal beef shins (osso bucco meets the short rib) that, after 12 hours of slow-braising into a caramelized black shine, sat atop velvety mashed potatoes beneath a coin of roasted marrow and a tangy snow of shaved horseradish.
A warm tart of the season's first rhubarb and strawberry topped with a melting scoop of buttermilk gelato concluded one of the most satisfying and surprising food events I've recently savored. And at $40 for four courses (including two excellent wines!), this first-come-first-served meal is certainly also one of the city's greatest gastro-bargains.
Fork, of course, has been working to refine this concept of affordable sophistication longer than many so-called trend-setters even survive. But with a maestro such as Feury now conducting the kitchen at its highest level yet, the flavors, at last, are finely tuned for a very bright future.
Next Sunday, restaurant critic Craig LaBan reviews Que Chula es Puebla in Kensington. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or email@example.com.