The Revisit: Fork

Ellen Yin could’ve gone easy on her parents. She could’ve merely threatened to run away with the circus, or hitchhike to Tijuana, or (gasp!) major in journalism. But none of those things were rash enough for Mommy and Daddy’s doctor/engineer-to-be. No, she just had to open an upscale bistro. In a neighborhood with no apparent need for one. Next-door to a dollar store. In a building freshly scarred by fire.

[sidebar]True, she’d done some homework. Of a sort. As an MBA student at Wharton, she’d analyzed the feasibility of opening a Taco Bell franchise in Center City. So really, who can blame her folks for shipping her off to the psychiatric hospital in Belmont?

Okay, I made up that last part. By the time Yin opened Fork in 1997, she was more than a decade removed from the girl who’d fallen for the restaurant biz somewhere between her high-school job at a Mongolian barbecue joint and her undergraduate waitressing shifts at La Terrasse. One of the advantages of waiting until your 30s to make good on teenage threats is that your parents no longer have the legal standing to send you to the boobie hatch.

But still, bringing a liquor-licensed Slow Food outpost to the 300 block of Market Street was not exactly a slam dunk in 1997. Stephen Starr had taken a chance up the street with Continental two years before, but this was before the likes of Buddakan and Chloe and Amada made “Old City” synonymous with “dinner date.” In all likelihood, that Taco Bell would’ve been a better bet.

So Fork deserves a soft spot in the heart of any reasonable Philadelphia eater, and might even deserve it if all it was doing now was coasting along on the back of its jacket-and-tie clientele. That’s how most restaurants slide into middle age, after all. But coasting is the last thing that chef Terence Feury’s food brings to mind.

Yin hooked up with Feury about two years ago after her longtime chef Thien Ngo retired. I liked Ngo’s cooking—though I only ever had it at lunch—but Feury’s creations put him in a league with the very best chefs in town.

From the house-cured charcuterie to the rosemary-tinged Fists of Feury pale ale (a collaboration with Victory Brewing and his brother Patrick, who helms the kitchen at Nectar), Feury’s kitchen is abreast or ahead of almost every worthwhile food trend Philly has going. And his approach to seasonal cooking is just slippery enough to keep you on your toes. A meal in early April brought seared scallops into congress with the first really good artichoke hearts of the year, and cut the richness of that pairing with snow-white ribbons of pickled salsify and a slick of lemon confit speckled with truffle shavings. What could be better than those rites of spring? Well, maybe a shot of summer in November, which is how Feury served up his scallops the last time I had them: with piquillo peppers, crispy shallots, and green-tomato jam.

And if both entrées had enough going on to keep you riveted from first bite to last, Feury’s duck captivated from an even earlier juncture. Just a glance was enough—the lightly smoked breast perched atop a red-flannel hash of beets, potatoes and corned duck leg, all of it looming over a dark auburn pool of duck jus that halfway engulfed the island of cassis mustard rising from the other side of the plate.

Now, there’s artful plating and then there’s flat-out art, I know. But digging into this plate was like attacking one of Rothko’s color field compositions with a fork and knife. And Feury’s duck certainly tasted better than eating paint and canvas, bringing to the joy of obliteration the punch of mustard with Chinese potency, smoky and salty duck flesh, and the peppery spikes of baby mustard greens and arugula sprouts stabbing through the concentrated jus.

The kitchen also offers simpler stuff: cleanly flavored smoked salmon with chive coulis and apples sliced as thin as knife blades; steamed mussels dipped in batter and fried to crispy puffs, served around a bird’s nest of baby greens and fennel leaves. Delightful, all of it. And a flawless crème fraîche panna cotta topped with jellied lemon? There’s no better ending to a warm-weather meal. (Certainly not the chèvre cheesecake, whose ice crystals testified to an overly long spell in the cold corner of the fridge.)

Though entrée prices sometimes drift up to and above the $30 mark, the menu offers some value propositions that most restaurants don’t—most notably, the small-bites options at appetizer and dessert, which gives twosomes an affordable way to try four or five meticulously crafted flavor combinations. Think cured bass belly with a sun-dried tomato tapenade. Or almond cake with apple butter.

Fork has won some well-deserved plaudits for its wine selection, which is compact but skillfully curated, but this magazine’s Best of Philly nods for wine value in past years do not withstand present scrutiny. Markups hover around the dismal industry standard in Philadelphia: closer to triple retail than double. Just the same, I’d belly up to Fork’s sophisticated bar any day of the week for the pepper-infused rye in the Paul Revere cocktail, or a postprandial glass of Madeira (a city this history-soaked ought to have more restaurants offering those), or even just for the Fists of Feury, whose lemony hops mesh with the understated rosemary to make an immensely refreshing summer-evening brew. From aperitif to digestivo, the drinking here is as robust as the eating.

It’s been almost 14 years since Fork opened. The dollar store is gone. A person could now eat at a different place every night for three months without ever leaving a four-block radius centered on Old City. But as long as Ellen Yin can hold onto Terence Feury, it’s hard to think of a compelling reason to choose any of them over this one. And harder still to imagine that the world would’ve been better off with another dermatologist or systems engineer.