A number of keen observations slide into my mind as I settle onto a long wooden bench at Fork & Barrel, soak in the crooning jazz soundtrack, and sip a bittersweet beer brewed by the inmates of an Italian penitentiary.
The beer, of course, is a delicious curiosity - an exceedingly rare coffee-infused Chicca from Pausa Café, a prisoner-run cooperative craft brewery in the Piedmont. And it's just one of umpteen fascinating stories behind the 130-plus handpicked artisan Euro brews that have instantly made this East Falls newcomer one of Philly's ultimate lairs for seducing your favorite beer nerd.
The menu, too, has an unusual angle, with a wild game fetish - whole pheasant, braised rabbit, oxtail pasta - that you just don't see at your typical beer bar.
Mostly, though, I can't help thinking that it's a good thing the East Falls fire station is right across the street. That's because Fork & Barrel has gone back to the 19th century with its lighting scheme: 75 candles set ablaze each night - and not a lightbulb in the downstairs dining room. (There is, thankfully, one dim bulb in the men's room to assure orientation.) But the rustic ambience is definitely unique.
I'd think those firemen would be grateful for a moody haunt where they could grab a half-dozen New Brunswick oysters and a pint of juniper-scented HaandBryggeriet from Norway, or better yet, a smoky Italian Malthus Birrola described by co-owner Matt Scheller as tasting of "used catcher's mitt." Batter up, barman!
After all, East Falls eaters have languished through some dreary dining years - despite the continued hope for gentrification. Mostly, though, Scheller says, the firefighters have stopped by for safety visits and to hand out a pamphlet on city candle-use laws.
If high-end Fork & Barrel does not feel like it was born of a typical East Falls sensibility, that's because it wasn't. The owners, Scheller and his partners, Matt and Colleen Swartz, came from the Lehigh Valley, where they own the similarly cool Tap & Table in Emmaus, and a 1920s-style cocktail bar, the Bookstore Speakeasy, in Bethlehem.
They've been impressively busy in Philly, too, in the short time since opening Fork & Table in October. They've just revamped the Italian menu and cocktail list at neighboring Franco's Trattoria, and are already scouting another location for a gastropub concept in Center City in the spring. It's remarkable, considering how saturated the local beer scene already appeared to be, that they have managed to grasp a sophisticated sliver of an open niche with their high-concept spaces, hard-core beer lists, and ambitious menus.
Actually, "ambitious" does not exactly apply to the 16-variety hot-dog menu and roasted peanuts that accompany the all-American brews in the upstairs Cask Saloon. The Nathan's dogs are pretty average, the buns too bulky, and the toppings unexpectedly bland and overwrought with gimmicky piled-on eggs (scrambled, fried, etc.)
But chef Peter Felton's game-inspired menu in the downstairs tavern, with its long communal tables and medieval light, is as intriguing (at least in concept) as any bar's in town. The $35 roast pheasant for two was reason in itself to come, the clove-brined bird roasted to a golden crisp and served with a knife plunged into its breast alongside a hunk of bread pudding moist with woodsy shiitake richness. I only wish there'd been more gravy to mop up its savory goodness.
Given that it takes 45 minutes to cook once ordered, there's plenty of time to explore some other highlights. The creamy Beausoleil oysters with raspberry mignonette are a good way to start, as are the charcuterie and cheeses. The house-made Bavarian pretzel is hard to resist, even if it's so doughy and puffy it looks like a bagel. But the unusual "salt potatoes," tiny rounds of purple and golden spuds encrusted in kosher salt, were my favored beer-stoking nibble.
Beer, of course, remains the primary reason to visit. And Felton's culinary instincts are appealing, especially with special menus like the New Year's Eve Vieux Carré dinner that included ingredients of absinthe in every dish (wormwood-smoked pork chop with genepi glace; hyssop panna cotta).
The standard nightly menu, though, fumbled its opportunity to be something special with a series of cooking miscues. Both the quail and the rabbit were overdone - flavorful but dry - as was the otherwise clever poussin with waffles (which would have been so much better country-fried.) The Spaten-braised oxtail stew was tender, but its black pepper pasta was undercooked and chewy (hopefully not an omen for Franco's.)
I had far better luck with the savory six-ounce lamb burger. I also loved the hearty beet borscht with its airy choux-pastry dumplings, the thick waterzooi monkfish chowder (tweaked with sour gueuze), and a plate of Belgian endive, its bitterness toned down with a lemony blanch, then stuffed with ham and Gruyère cheese.
The boar bratwurst with braised red cabbage is perfect for those who crave sausage with their brews. But many of the beers on this list are so rich and complex, they're practically meals on their own.
The selection can be intense to a fault - there are few mild-drinking beers (maybe the Jever pilsner?) to ease in a craft novice. There are gravity-draining casked ales that probably could have benefited from a little cool carbonation (like the Dogfish Head-Italian collaboration Gina, that tasted like herbal tea steeped from sweat socks.)
There's also a slightly pedantic tone (paired with scattered, overwhelmed servers) that risks being a turn-off. Mostly, though, Scheller, a precocious beer expert at 26, has assembled an undebatably stunning list of sip-and-learn rarities that explore Europe's small-batch beer corners far beyond the Belgians Philadelphia already knows (though they are amply represented, too). The flamboyant and pricey ales of Italy are one exciting surprise, like the licoricey imperial stout from Del Ducato. England's bitters show strong, as did a coveted draft of Harviestoun Ola Dubh from Scotland aged in 18-year-old Scotch barrels. It tasted like toffee, coffee, and smoked briquettes. My favorite discovery, though, was the beers of Norway's HaandBryggeriet (say: "Hand-Brigariot"), especially the midnight-black Odin's Tipple, a chocolaty Imperial stout bomb named for the Norse god of poetry, war, and death.
Perhaps Odin is the god of candles, too. Because every time I took a sip, my beer-and-pheasant eve at Fork & Barrel got just a little brighter.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Ting Wong in Chinatown. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.