Philadelphia Restaurant Review: The Old-School Excellence of Fork

Can an infusion of Manhattan talent bring life to Ellen Yin's 15-year-old Philly food institution?

Do you ever get the feeling that the only reason anybody opens a restaurant nowadays is to work it for a year, or maybe six months, or perhaps just a solid 20 minutes—and then turn around and open another? I do. In the past year, there was only a single month in which I didn’t review at least one place backed by a two-time, four-time or 28-time restaurateur. Starr, Vetri, Solomonov: The race to sign new leases keeps quickening. Philadelphia is no place to request a seat at the owner’s table, because it’s probably equipped with an ejection seat.

Then there’s Ellen Yin, who’s been at the helm of Fork for 15 years. Technically, she’s a two-timer—but her next-door gourmet market, Fork: Etc., is just an asterisk. To dine at Fork is to watch Yin greet customers, replace silverware between courses, hunt for dropped earrings and bus tables. In the era of the absentee owner, she embodies the old-school notion that nothing breeds excellence like undivided attention.

That was just what Fork needed after Terence Feury ended his terrific three-and-a-half-year run as head chef last summer. Yin reworked the decor, poached Eli Kulp from Manhattan’s beloved Torrisi Italian Specialties to take over the kitchen, and didn’t miss a single day of service during the six-month transition.

And it’s paid off. Kulp can cook, no doubt. Barely a week into his tenure, he put out a split-personality guinea hen that would go down as the best entrée I’d eaten in a year. The thighs were done up as fried nuggets with hot sauce; the breasts had a mysterious depth—and crackling skin—born of dry aging, complemented by a nose-tingling mustard oil, crème fraîche, and sweet pear and apple marbles that riveted me to the last bite.

Kulp does even better by duck. He hangs the carcasses in cold air for a week, spends another week Peking-ifying them—ballooning the skins with an air compressor, dipping them in a boiling vinegar solution, powdering them with baking soda, glazing them with maltose—and then veers sharply away from China, cooking the breasts medium rare rather than to death.

An Italian sensibility carried the rest of that whole-animal meal: confit thighs with broccoli rabe, a bitter Treviso salad with grilled hearts and duck prosciutto, and a pair of giant meatballs from leg meat bound with pork fat and pecorino—deep-fried, sous-vided, and finished with a sweet agrodolce sauce.

Other than the spike of almond paste distorting a celery-root puree (which, I should say, my companion loved alongside those crispy-skinned breasts), it was a whale of an $88 dinner for two. And it was also a fine encapsulation of Kulp’s style, which favors allusion over authenticity. He approaches Mediterranean dishes with an almost Southeast Asian emphasis on the interplay of sweet, salty, sour, spicy and bitter flavors—even if the only dish that read even halfway “Asian” was a bread-crusted branzino filet touched with a tame curried tamarind sauce.

Take his “burnt grains” pappardelle, inspired by (of all things) the stubble of burned fields. Kulp pulverizes charred wheatberries to make a semi-sour pasta that has the bitter hum of baking chocolate. It’s dressed with boar ragu, black olives, and flecks of preserved lemon whose contrasting brightness just underscores what a brooding dish this is.

Most of his fare is sprightlier—more brightly bountiful than broodingly agrarian. Surf clams came as a crudo built on pickled apples. Crème fraîche and sliced Jonagolds pushed a sweetly dressed kale salad halfway toward decadence.

Kulp plucks pici, a hand-rolled spaghetti, out of its landlocked Siena birthplace and splashes it down into the Tyrrhenian Sea—fusing squid-ink dough with the eggless wheat pasta and tossing the two-tone noodles with octopus, squid, and clams in a squid-braise liquor that hops with garlic. His rabbit-strewn pistachio agnolotti are as delicate and sweet as dessert. And though it seems odd to call out breadcrumbs, the tiny ones speckling both those pastas were uncommonly delicious. So was a charred eggplant cake, whose chocolate-smothered smokiness was the standout of an otherwise uneven dessert menu.

Dinner is pricey, but the service justifies the cost. When I failed to gush over my server’s favorite wine one evening, she took a sip, agreed that while not spoiled it was a bit skewed, and uncorked a fresh bottle as excellent as her taste-memory. When I ordered “the one wine we just ran out of” another night, a diffe­rent server consoled me with a free glass of grenache, then steered me toward a pleasant bottle $20 cheaper than my first choice.

As it turned out, this was Anthony DeMelas, who has waited tables for Yin (with a hiatus) since day one, and whose abstract forest murals have transformed a tired interior into a great place to simply stare at the wall.

Somehow, Fork seems like the only place in town where the owner’s commitment is that contagious, or bears such varied fruit. And there’s never been a better time to taste it.