Eli Kulp’s furniture is sitting in the dark in New York. The movers hired to truck it down the Jersey Turnpike to his new digs cancelled, powerless as the island Kulp called home before agreeing to relocate to Philly to become the executive chef of Ellen Yin’s 15-year-old Old City bistro, Fork. But for Kulp, who’s endured a nightly PHL-NYC commute for the past two months, a naked apartment is better than no apartment at all.
“I knew I wouldn’t feel totally comfortable till I got Eli in an apartment,” Yin laughs. I hope it’s less an apartment than a minimum-security prison; Kulp, former chef de cuisine of Manhattan media darling Torrisi Italian Specialties, is such a good get I want to make absolutely certain he’s not going to slink back to New York one night when none of us is looking.
To be fair, Kulp came here totally of his own volition, attracted to our fair town’s immense livability — and the opportunity to totally remake an iconic restaurant. “We weren’t really planning on leaving New York,” Kulp says. “I knew for me to come to Philly, it had to be a scenario I really wanted to be in.”
Yin gave him that scenario on a silver platter, and for its 15th birthday, Fork got one of the country’s brightest young culinary talents. She refreshed the dining room for his arrival, switching out cloths for manlier wood-topped tables, removing banquettes and commissioning two murals from artist and longtime staffer Anthony DeMelas. Palms still skim the ceiling and bar, where I fell for the vegetal nature of a sparkling-wine aperitif dosed with celery water, verjus and artichoke-y Cynar and which still holds the monopoly on urbane city drinking, but the restaurant vibes with a new freshness that matches the food.
The glowing open kitchen (Philadelphia’s first, by the way) has been reconfigured to Kulp’s specifications. Yin is committed, and so is her new chef. It shows in his wily, energetic, precisely executed plates, the best and most relevant Fork has served in 15 years of business.
But perfect? No. Chopped raw surf clam sloshing about in its briny shell was a bit like seawater-flavored mouthwash, and the pastrami spices seemed to have fallen out of the roulade of lamb neck like change in the washing machine. But even those dishes had redeeming elements, like hot pops of apple and horseradish in the former and pungent sauerkraut and a fine lamb rib chop in the latter.
The rest of the food I was served during two meals here required no redemption, each component sparkling with creativity and finesse. Lemon puree, dehydrated black-olive “dirt” and potato coins recast familiar ingredients in unfamiliar forms for a lucky, leggy octopus tentacle. Pickled aji dulce chiles warmed quail-stuffed quail lying over a triple pumpkin salad of toasted seeds, charred pickled flesh and splashes of nutty oil. Chicken nuggets reached their crispy, sweet-and-sour apex in Kulp’s kitchen. He sous-vides, rice-flour-batters, fries, glazes and piles thighs over brutally, awesomely spicy mustard for a McDonald’s-meets-Michelin snack.
A plate dubbed “the roots” was a congress of cooked and raw vegetables freshly liberated from soil: carrots, parsnips, sweet potatoes and a pair of butter-roasted sunchokes masquerading as truffles in black-trumpet-mushroom powder. A faintly sweet white whip of almonds and celery root surfed the inside of the bowl. Translucent petals of fresh pear added a whisper of sweetness.
Or maybe it’s the branzino — yes, the branzino. Innocuous? Well, yes. But Kulp yanks the mild white bass out of its Mediterranean comfort zone and plunks it down in a wild, lip-puckering tamarind curry brewed with a Bengali merchant’s trove of spices. Unusual accoutrements (crunchy, dime-sized arborio rice cakes, wilted spinach and tangy artichoke hearts) enhanced the fish, which arrived under a tailored slice of housemade toast, the answer to the menu’s mysterious “en croute” clue.
Phrases in quotations like that pepper Kulp’s menu, framing enigmas like “guitar” spaghetti and hanger steak with “baked potato.” Fortunately, the staff proved well-versed in the changes, especially Danielle Jamrozy, who’s just about everything you could ask for in a server. “Let me know if you have any questions,” she told me after setting down a bourbon cocktail with Fernet and Peychaud’s. “There’s a lot to talk about on this menu.” She ain’t kidding.
Jamrozy steered me toward the “house menu” tasting, the best way to experience the new Fork. From the full menu, you choose a starter, a pasta for the table — get the nutty-sweet Sicilian-pistachio agnolotti topped with braised rabbit and breadcrumbs — an entree and one of pastry chef Jonathan Saliba’s vivacious desserts. Bittersweet chocolate poufs with spicy fig ice cream and deconstructed Honeycrisp apple pie with pastry shards and frozen blue-cheese nougat could not have been more perfect.
At $65 a head, the prix-fixe beats the a la carte prices and includes the thoughtful little extras that make a meal feel like dinner out: amuse bouches like classed-up Whiz-filled soft pretzels, fun bread pairings — deli-inspired pumpernickel with birch-beer butter! — and tiny doughnuts in lieu of petit fours. Dollars to, well, doughnuts, these are the details you’ll take away from Fork, an establishment that with one swift personnel change has gone from a very good restaurant to a very important restaurant. With Kulp in the kitchen, Fork now joins the torchbearers of the new modern era in Philadelphia dining. Now someone get this man an armchair.
FORK | 306 Market St., 215-625-9425, forkrestaurant.com. Lunch served Wed.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; dinner served Mon.-Thur., 5:30-10 p.m.; Fri., 5:30-10:30 p.m.; Sat., 5-10:30 p.m.; Sun., 5-9:30 p.m. Bites, $7.50-$11; raw bar, $10-$11; starters, $14-$18; pastas, $16-$29; entrees, $28-$36; desserts, $9.50-$10; house menu, $65.