Most foodies want to experience local food trends, local chefs, and the local palate. Fork does all of these things, even with cheeky amuses bouches which wink at Philadelphia’s famous pretzels. Owner Ellen Yin is ever-present and makes a terrific ambassador to the city’s food culture, stopping at each table to welcome guests.
Fork is one of those fashionable restaurants where every night feels like Friday. Perfectly low lighting and music blend with chic, eclectic decor that feels ever so slightly Asian. Maybe it’s the murals, hand-painted by our waiter who’s an artist by day. The images of trees give way to a real white birch in the centre of the room, surrounded by sepia-toned paper chandeliers.
Yin first brought the “farm to table” food concept to Philadelphia when she opened Fork 15 years ago. Since then, Fork has worked its way through a few popular chefs. Eli Kulp, formerly of Del Posto in New York, is Fork’s most recent arrival. His menu is a blend of Mediterranean, Moroccan and Middle Eastern. Dishes are ingredient-driven, and now, in the dead of winter, it’s no surprise the offerings are game heavy.
Fork is a place for serious foodies. Dishes are focused on specialty ingredients and unusual flavours not particularly suited for the meat-and-potatoes crowd. Courses are divided into Bites Raw Bar, To Start, Pasta and Mains. The advice is to sample a Bite or an item from the Raw Bar ahead of a Starter, which will still leave plenty of room for everything else.
Some things are extraordinary hits, others need a re-think. We plunge in with the stracciatella eggplant bite which is essentially a crisp cracker served with local mozzarella so fresh its thin strands are draped over a mound of smoky, sweet eggplant. The dish has great texture and flavour and I’m not ashamed to admit I could lick the board it’s served on clean.
The oyster in gazpacho vinegar, another bite, is also a success. It’s a subtle dish, with the gazpacho ingredients strained into clear vinegar, giving the oyster a clean, tangy tomato taste.
Scallop crudo arrives with a parsley kimchi which is perfect for those who like the sharp, piquant bite balancing out the sweet scallop (I do not, my companion does). Instead, I demolish the mozzarella di bufala (yes, more) cleverly served with cured cantaloupe. It’s a vegetarian’s version of prosciutto, except the sweet taste of fruit leather is a better balance for the salty, oozy bufala.
The crab-apple soup could be terrific, but there’s far too much soup for a starter, and its sweetness makes it feel more like a dessert.
Somehow we’ve overdone it on the warm-up dishes, but it’s time for the mains. The branzino is, we’re told, a signature dish; with an interesting East meets West take. A thin rectangle of buttery bread is slow baked on top of the fish which sits on a layer of tamarind sauce, spinach and thinly sliced onions. The flavours are complex, and again, texture plays a big role with the crunchy bread.
The poached lobster has a lovely strong, preserved lemon sauce with a local sun choke puree. It’s exactly what I want – light, with a fresh flavour. Great thought has gone into even the simple dishes and it shows.
Service is terrific and our artist-waiter Anthony appears to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the menu. The one area where things go a bit wobbly is dessert. The chef who seems to master melding unusual pairings for the savoury dishes goes overboard with things like charred eggplant cake, which simply tastes like I’ve been forced to eat something blindfolded. But all that’s required is a shift from experimental to decadence to make Fork’s endings flow, because everything else, from the ambience to the service, to Yin’s personal touch, really works.
Fork: etc. just next door is a specialty market offering charcuterie, artisan cheeses and prepared foods from Fork’s kitchen.
306 Market Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106
(215) 625 9425