HIGH BAR: Eggplant agnolotti and Sichuan pork belly set the table at High Street on Market.
On the first day, Kulp created bread. Miniature caramelized-onion bialys, to be exact, riding comets of cream cheese suffused with the essence of grass.
I can’t say for sure if Eli Kulp baked these babies on his official first day at Fork, where he’s been head chef for about a year and a half. But it was something of a watershed moment when a server first passed me a plate of them across the bar, a few weeks into Kulp’s tenure. It was my first bite of his cooking, and it tasted, instantly, like a new era for Fork.
“When I first met with Eli, I specifically remember telling him how we had been making the same style rolls forever,” Fork’s co-owner, Ellen Yin, says. She wanted something new, and the bialy was born.
Tiny pretzels came, too, with cheesy magma cores. Pumpernickel followed. Sam Kincaid, a Madison, Wisc., baker, joined Fork’s team as pastry chef, and with her came squid-ink sponges and beef-fat rolls. Bread pairings and courses popped up, and soon, “people were ordering the House Menu” — Fork parlance for their customizable tasting — “just to get the bread.”
So when it came time for Fork’s adjacent café, Fork etc., to become a new concept, High Street on Market, “I think our mutual love of grains sort of became the backbone,” explains Kulp. “It fit really well into the idea of craftsmanship.”
Named for Market Street’s colonial moniker, High Street opened in September for breakfast, lunch and brunch, meals that see luxe yogurt, dreamy duck-meatball sandwiches and Rival Bros. coffee populating the wood-top tables in the blueberry-and-cream-colored space. The breads are extraordinary — great, brown masses fortified with local, heirloom and ancient grains by Alexandre Bois, a veteran of New York’s acclaimed Sullivan Street Bakery; he joined Kulp’s expat army in May to oversee the bread program while Kincaid focuses on creative pastries (pistachio escargots, ham-and-gravy Danishes) and desserts.
Dinner service at High Street came online in October with candles and broccoli-rabe cocktails. The transition from morning to evening is seamless, with connective threads casting déjà vu through the meals: The electric lacto-fermented chow-chow that sits on the tables during the day in little glass pots emerges at night as a spicy garnish for crispy, chrysalis-light broccoli tempura. The blistered long hots that chaperone afternoon sandwiches become a blistering chermoula scattered over roasted Hubbard squash hummus. And, of course, the bread: sour levain marbled with earthy black vegetable ash; nutty buckwheat jeweled with fat Jersey cherries; the Anadama, a dense New England-style loaf sticky with molasses. There are fluffy, steaming potato rolls, too, brushed with toasted malted-rye syrup and beer before baking so they resemble adorable baby spuds.
“Where Fork is a step left of mainstream, we wanted [High Street] to be a couple more steps left,” says Kulp, who looms like a totem pole in the open kitchen, a pencil tucked behind his ear and a head taller than anyone else. I wondered if the view from up there was disconcerting one night, a Saturday that saw Fork mobbed but a half-full High Street dining room with all the energy of a spelling bee.
Roasted in beef fat and slightly dehydrated to intensify their flavor, the umami epic of “dry-aged” beets created a mini-commotion at my table. Sorry, Farm and the Fisherman’s Bloody Beet Steak: You’ve been ousted as the best beet dish in town.
Disappointment courted other bites. Little shrimp preserved under a cap of nutmeg-scented foie mousse: kind of a bore. Hay-smoked ham, the night’s protein for two: beautifully cooked but not very smoky — and easily upstaged by its Castle Valley Mills polenta and a salad of Brussels sprout, apple, kohlrabi and bacon vinaigrette. Kulp’s goal for High Street is to be “on the edge” and “ahead of the status quo,” but he wasn’t getting there with those plates.
The pastas I tried were well made and perfectly cooked, but offered thrills on paper only. Lobster bottarga, a topping for lovely seaweed bucatini, sure sounded interesting, but the cured red petals Kulp crafts from the crustacean’s liquid roe lack the marine punch of typical tuna-roe bottarga.
At the end of the meal, Kincaid’s savory-skewing desserts featured elements of coffee, rye, buckwheat and buttermilk and felt like a punishment for my grand expectations.
A month later, I ate at a different restaurant. This High Street seemed more focused, leaner and more confident, and the jammed dining room reverberated with electricity on what should have been a sleepy weeknight service.
The bar, for Kulp, is set high; on this night, he surpassed it with hit after hit, starting with that tremendous broccoli rabe cocktail. Wicked fingers of razor clam — breaded, fried and dunked in habanero buttermilk dressing — seemed to have gotten lost on their way to Oyster House, but were perfect and welcome nonetheless. Al dente coins of buckwheat orecchietti cradled crispy okra and sweet crawfish tails in one clever pasta dish; agnolotti hid charred eggplant seasoned with brazen jerk spices in another. The latter came garnished with sweet, tangy, cheese-like drifts of caramelized goat’s yogurt that Kulp conjures in an immersion circulator, just the kind of genius little trick I’ve come to expect from him.
Braised rabbit leg tangled with candied chestnuts, bitter treviso and mustard oil-marinated apple orbs in an arrangement that recalled the root vegetable salad at Fork. My favorite dish, meanwhile, echoed Han Dynasty around the corner: firm, chilled, chile-oil-bathed shavings of Country Time pork belly, fried scallions and zippy red watercress beaded with wild, West Chester-harvested Sichuan peppercorns. Local Sichuan peppercorns — who knew? Evan Strusinksi, who forages Pennsylvania to Maine for chefs like David Chang and Mario Batali, that’s who. The peppercorns crunched between my teeth like candy, releasing their numbing compounds and intoxicating perfume.
Later, in a sundae, I located the joy Kincaid pours into her morning pastries. Three treatments of farmer Tom Culton’s persimmons (fresh, spun into sorbet, compressed in verjus blanc) brought brightness and balance to torn hunks of sticky date cake, buttermilk ice cream, roasted dates, coffee butterscotch and honeyed almonds.
Paired with friendly, well-groomed service, it was one of my best meals of 2013 — and the only one finished with robust Rival Revolver, served in a cast-iron Le Creuset French press that matches the room’s teal wainscoting. That Pantone harmony is no accident; Yin and Kulp are a detail-obsessed duo that won’t rest until High Street is the best restaurant in Philadelphia. Right now they’ll have to settle for merely the best bakery.
High Street on Market | 308 Market St., 215-625-0988, highstreetonmarket.com. Breakfast and lunch: Mon.-Fri., 7 a.m.-3:30 p.m., Sat.-Sun., 8 a.m.-3:30 p.m.; dinner: Tue.-Thu. 5:30-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 5:30-10:30 p.m.; $3-$23.
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