I hadn't dined at Fork, on Market Street in Philadelphia, in quite a long time. I remember some pleasant meals there when I first moved to Philly, and that they had a very nice brunch at some point.
It has always had a very nice atmosphere. The central bar area creates an atrium effect, and the open kitchen gives a sense of spaciousness as well as action. Open kitchens also reflect attention to detail on the part of the owners, requiring that they hire chefs and kitchen personnel who are not only talented but also show the highest level of professional behavior. No swearing or throwing utensils allowed!
The staff is friendly and welcoming. Parking validation at the nearby Bourse Garage is a nice touch for us suburbanites, particularly since valet parking is not available.
Our server was knowledgeable, pleasant, and enthusiastic. He seemed to understand the rhythm of our group, and was always present and attentive without interrupting our conversation. Our cocktails were traditionally sized, well-mixed and served promptly. (More than one Sazerac would have been nice, but as a driver I declined.) After dinner, we sat and chatted for quite a while. No one was waiting for our table that we could tell. We were offered additional coffee and after-dinner drinks, and we were not rushed at all.
The menu was a bit confusing but we figured it out. A full-on tasting menu, a four-course menu, or typical a la carte structure were offered. Small starter courses were tilted in the oceanic direction-- lots of fish options. The women shared a salad. The men filled up on a tender but appropriately chewy house made red onion bialy. I hate cream cheese, but I’m told the homemade version at Fork is delicious.
The menu screams modern, informed, and television-cooking-show aware. At least one option in each course contained at least one set of quotations. Lots of ingredients, dual and triple preparations, and at least one item per choice for which we had to request a definition. An earthy vegetable ragout with a flat pasta covering and cool fried mushroom sounds awesome, but it isn't a “lasagna,” even with quotation marks!
“Postage Stamps” -- raviolis with a chickpea/hummus-like filling and a Moroccan lamb crumble -- were presented beautifully with small sliced artichokes and chickpea pieces. The ravioli weren't ethereally thin (like the occasional special at Osteria, for example) but they were light with a slight chew. A Fennel Pappardelle was a star, with homemade wide, dark, al dente noodles in a light pork sausage sauce.
Entrees were slightly less cohesive. A very well-prepared “Amish chicken with dirty rice” delivered tasty but small bites of chicken. Bronzino “en croute” was not encased in anything, but was served on a bed of smoked spinach with a razor-thin covering of sliced, toasted homemade Italian bread. Crispy rice cakes were crispy on the outside, slightly chewy through the middle, and just salty enough to complement the fish. Grilled lobster served on a local corn polenta was buttery and as good as lobster on polenta sounds like it should be. Especially when the corn has a name. A claw salad served separately in a small glass bowl tasted like an excellent lobster roll, but felt out of place. (Serve that over the thin bread from the bronzino, and you’d have me at hello!)
Desserts were an odd mix. Four components apiece increases the likelihood that one of them will ruin the end of meal craving. A root beer float with a yogurt sorbet and chocolate? A blood orange “blossom” that’s really a soup? We settled on a brown butter shortbread fig tart with buttermilk-sage ice cream and pickled green apples. The tart was a big hit, almost like a shoofly pie with a hint of fig. Buttermilk-sage ice cream has an earthiness and tang that I don’t love, but I could appreciate the craftmanship. The apples I just didn't get, although the precisely cut disks were very cool-looking. The vinegar of the preparation increased the tartness of the already tart apples, and the pickle-like texture was discordant with the appearance of the disks, which suggested a deconstructed tart apple pie filling. There were three on the plate. I was the only one that ate one.
Overall, Fork was worth the visit and worth the price. The literal menu is a little too pretentious for me, and the preparations are a little busier than I would like. Desserts are my thing, and I prefer a little more straightforward craving satisfaction. However, the components of each meal were well-prepared and of the highest quality. The homemade pastas in particular were standouts. Each plate was clearly meticulously constructed. The lasting impression of the experience is that I was served a meal prepared by a talented kitchen with high quality ingredients that tasted good, in a very relaxed atmosphere. It wasn't an otherworldly evening, but it is a restaurant that definitely belongs on the yearly rotation and I’m sure we’ll be back.
P.S. If I could walk there, I’d be a regular at the bar for sure.