When Kevin Meeker gets a warm feeling about restaurant trends, he usually has a clue. It's just the fine art of timing that seems to elude him.
Mexican food? He was already up to his elbows in tortillas by the late 1970s at Los Amigos in Berlin. But few people then, including Meeker (who was cooking), knew a burrito from a taco.
Old City? Meeker helped pioneer the place in 1982 when he opened Philadelphia Fish & Co., a stylish-but-accessible seafood standby that has dabbled in everything from mesquite grilling to cold sake. Looking back over the neighborhood's explosion in the last 10 years, however, Meeker second-guesses himself: "I was way too early."
In his latest venture, Cork, Meeker has finally nailed a neighborhood at the right moment. With the BYOB dining scenes in dry Collingswood and Haddonfield just blossoming into maturity nearby, snaring a liquor license on Haddon Avenue between the two, in tiny Westmont, seems like a coup. Plus, it's close to home for the South Jersey resident.
Philadelphia-based DAS Architects has given Cork a handsome, urban look that would sit well in any happening town, with lots of dark woods, cork-shaped lights and leather banquettes. And many of the staffers are noticeably young, as at many new suburban restaurants, but they are genuinely outgoing and friendly.
As for the menu, well, Cork has the right idea with its small plates and contemporary entrees that run the gamut from pot stickers to truffled scallops. Getting the kitchen to deliver with consistency, however, especially for $20 to $25 an entree, proved a tall challenge.
Cork has already changed chefs once, veering quickly away from a more pronounced Asian fusion theme after only a few weeks. But perhaps Meeker's sense of timing is premature once again - this time in personnel - in entrusting the menu to a young kitchen that is obviously too inexperienced to make it work.
For the most part, it was execution - not concept - that was the downfall of these dishes. Crispy vegetable spring rolls had a nice, light citrus flavor, but were sodden with grease. Tuna tartare brought a raw mince of what appeared to be excellent-quality fish, but was so unbearably salty that my guest found it impossible to eat.
A simple but unfortunate rendition of fried calamari tasted like vacuum-cleaner belts with aioli. The house-made tuna burger, blended with a touch of ginger and soy, was so overpureed, then overcooked, it reminded me of the frozen variety from Trader Joe's.
After so many flubs, an ambitious special of chilled mango soup with jalape?o-cilantro foam was a surprise success, the sweet exotic fruit giving way to a tingle of herby spice. An Americanized version of pot stickers, though, was clumsily overthought, replacing the usual Asian-flavored pork filling with ground beef and gorgonzola that turned hard and dry when cooked.
For the moment, Cork's best qualities seem to be at the bar, where the restaurant is cultivating a local crowd with a number of frou-frou martinis meant to rival Giumarello's across the street. More intriguing to me, however, is Meeker's fine selection of beers on draft - Belgian La Chouffe, Pennsylvania Troegs, and British Boddington's - and one of the better-priced quality wine lists around. The list isn't huge, but it's stocked with smart value wines from Alsace (Trimbach gewurztraminer, $22) and California (Cuvaison chardonnay, $28; Qupe syrah, $25), and cold sakes at very fair prices.
One of the kitchen's best efforts - the individual pizzas - are ideal for the bar crowd. The crusts from nearby Severino are delightfully thin and the toppings are nicely balanced, especially the truffled shrimp with fontinella cheese and the pizza with bacon and goat cheese. The grilled shrimp cocktail, which came with tasty pico de gallo and avocado cream, was another worthy bar nibble.
When it came to Cork's pricier entrees, however, the most satisfying seemed to have been borrowed from Philadelphia Fish & Co.'s greatest hits: a $20 steamed lobster, sweet and tender, that came with potatoes and grilled corn.
Most of the other entrees, unfortunately, suffered from the little flaws that dimmed many of the starters. A seared tuna steak was served so rare it was cold, while its soba noodle garnish was overcooked and gummy. I liked the corn and potato hash that came with the crabcake, but the cake itself tasted too much like mayonnaise. The wild mushroom ravioli were "crispy" to the point that their soft fillings shot across the plate every time I took a bite.
The kitchen may be aiming for presentation points and customer ease by removing the center bone before frying its branzino - but isn't the juice-giving spine the whole appeal of serving whole fish? The dry, bland fish we were served was a case in point.
Some dishes were closer to success than others. The diver scallops with pea risotto would have been excellent if they had been seared with a nice caramelized crust, but instead were big pale plugs. The juicy pork chop would have been delightful had it not been overwhelmed by the taste of grill-char (its yummy plantain-polenta garnish stole the show). The grilled flat-iron steak, a little-known but tender leg cut gaining popularity as a value steak, anchored a satisfying $19 plate, but would have been even nicer with better fries.
Considering Cork's savory troubles, I didn't have much hope for dessert, a fear borne out by a weirdly sour coconut tapioca soup and a banana split clad in too much cream fluff. But I was pleasantly surprised by some of the other sweets. The dark chocolate pot de creme was rich and intense with a tinge of coffee. A core of molten dark chocolate also made the fried wontons a success.
The sake-poached pear topped with caramel ice cream and a novel dusting of dried and pulverized raspberry gathered more than a few nods of approval. But we were split as to whether the jalapeño creme brulee was worthy, whether it lacked enough sting or tasted too much like pepper fruit. Either way, I think, it's one flavor among many at Cork that landed before its time.
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/craiglaban.