Bistro remains a haven of warmth and value
Old City's red-hot dining scene owes its soul to stylish bistros. These artfully rehabbed spaces, with their cool bar crowds and seasonal menus, prove that substance can be dished out with attitude and value. No bistro captures this spirit more completely than Fork, the Market Street storefront that Ellen Yin transformed with partners Roberto Sella and Anne-Marie Lasher in 1997. To my tastes, the dining room is one of the best spaces interior designer Marguerite Rodgers has ever created. The former socks store, vacant for years, glows with understated warmth, from the bustling perch of the square front bar my favorite spot for a quick lunch to the tall, quilted banquettes in the comfortable rear dining room adjoining the open kitchen. Swagged with velvet curtains, dotted with palms, lit with hand-painted fabric lamps, and punctuated by old cast-iron columns, it is a small room with many moods. And a loyal following. With its excellent, affordable wine list and capable servers, I can understand why. It feels good to be here. As for the food, it had been consistently good simple dishes garnished with seasonal flavors and clever comfort twists (a little sorrel for the pureed soup or a pat of bacon butter for the tilapia and buttermilk-mashed potatoes) but shy of great. Always nice touches at a nice price, but the kitchen seemed almost by design to stop short of grander culinary ambition. Accessibility and affordability were key, and there's nothing wrong with that. But when Lasher decided to leave last fall, the restaurant had an opportunity. Old City's dining scene had matured considerably, so why not Fork, too? The choice of veteran David Ballentine (Odeon, La Terrasse, Frog) to succeed Lasher as executive chef and co-owner has been more about maintaining the status quo than switching gears. In concept, little has changed. But in practice, the kitchen seems to have taken a small step backward. To be sure, I sampled many tasty dishes during recent meals at Fork. A hearty chicken potpie for lunch. A cool nest of soba noodles tossed with tender rock shrimp and peppery cress. Simply prepared but succulent seared scallops with hazelnuts and brown butter. But those meals were surprisingly inconsistent. And the flavors seemed duller and more one-dimensional than I remembered. How could a dish as appealing as braised lamb shank with escarole and white beans disappoint? Fork's was served high and dry over a bed of beans that tasted unseasoned. The Pernod-scented mussels lacked zip. And one vegetarian entree seemed as if it had been conceived in a kitchen accident: A pan of mushroom risotto spills into a pan of roasted squash. Voila! the heaviest mass of food a plate could hold. Fork's dinner entrees are all under $20, a rarity in today's fine-dining scene. But when you get a thin slice of mediocre beef as uninspired as Fork's $19 rib-eye, you realize all too well that you're getting just what you pay for. What Fork does best when the cooking works is to give food a shimmer that makes it seem like a bargain. Adorn an otherwise standard antipasto of prosciutto and mozzarella with something a little unusual intriguingly mild fresh white anchovies and I've found a new obsession. Crust a disk of warm goat cheese with toasted walnuts and a few drops of white truffle oil, and a $6 salad gets a whiff of luxury. Top a crock of creamy mushrooms with a lid of puff pastry. Stripe the house-cured salmon with garlicky streaks of dill-flavored cream. Give me deep-fried little artichokes and I won't mind that the bruschetta toasts they come on are chewy and awkward to eat. I loved the tender, seared duck breast, even if the skin was scorched and the meat was gashed like a bear-claw dessert. (Was somebody cheating to check the temperature?) Its Szechwan pepper crust was a perfect match for its dark sauce scented with star anise, the orange cloud of mashed sweet potatoes, and the snappy clusters of baby bok choy. Other dishes were satisfying for their simple flavor contrasts. A smoked pork chop with sweet-apple/onion compote and tangy red cabbage had some of the sharpest flavors of the meal. Grilled swordfish sauced with dark olive tapenade was an evocative play on a Mediterranean theme. Crabcakes were delightfully straightforward, brimming with crab and sided with a sparky Creole mustard mayonnaise. Blood-orange juice gave a classic butter sauce more than its pink hue; it offered an otherwise plain salmon a subtle but sunny twang. Many of the desserts paired high-quality, brought-in sorbets and gelatos with homey baked goods plates of cookies, ginger cakes, honey cakes and several kinds of cheesecake. It was a safe route, but rarely very interesting. Two exceptions: a wintry creme caramel infused with pumpkin, and a dense yogurt tart topped with refreshing pineapple cubes and sugared almonds a burst of sweet juice and crunch to temper the rich custard. The restaurant's kitchen, no doubt, is in transition. But many good things about Fork have remained rock-steady. The ever-present Yin gives the dining room an air of professionalism. Sella's wine list is as appealing as ever, offering many interesting options by the glass and for under $40 a bottle. Even if the experienced servers were a little flip in their wine recommendations (we got bad advice twice), there was something comforting in their familiar manner. Craig LaBan's e-mail address is email@example.com.