The Road to the 38: Eli Kulp Shows Philly How Duck Is Done at Fork and High Street on Market

Wed, 13 Aug 2014 16:34:35 +0000
[Photos: Bill Addison]<br /><br />Restaurant Editor Bill Addison is traveling the country to chronicle what's happening in America's dining scene and to formulate his list of the essential 38 restaurants in America. Follow his progress in this travelogue/review series, The Road to the 38, and check back at the end of the year to find out which restaurants made the cut.<br /><br />Philadelphia has done right by transplant Eli Kulp. He was chef de cuisine at Manhattan's empire-spawning Torrisi Italian Specialties before being recruited in 2012 by Ellen Yin, who opened Fork in 1997. The restaurant is often credited as sparking the dining boom in Philly's Old City district, but bringing in Kulp and his brainy Italian cooking pushed Fork into the national limelight like never before.<br /><br />Among across-the-board local accolades, Kulp was also named one of Food & Wine's Best New Chefs 2014 in April. Since his arrival, he and Yin revamped her next-door cafe Fork Etc into High Street on Market, which serves food throughout the day. The duo's newly formed High Street Hospitality Group also overhauled menus this year for A.Kitchen and A.Bar in the AKA Rittenhouse Square hotel.<br /><br />To explore the cult of Kulp, I started with lunch at High Street and returned the same day for dinner at Fork.<br /><br />Southern bakers should have come up with this first. High Street's red eye danish reconfigures one of Dixie's classic breakfasts—country ham in a simple pan sauce jolted with coffee. Laminated dough winds around a creamed gravy center with porky undertones and a java kick and then receives a coiled crown of Benton's ham. A final sprinkle of Gruyere hints at the flavors of a ham and cheese croissant. Genius.<br /><br />The pastry is a window into Kulp's approach: He's drawn to reimagining culinary touchstones. Jewish deli cuisine, for example, gets nods throughout the restaurant's various menus. At breakfast, a misshapen bialy come scattered with morsels of whitefish and pickled red peppers. The roll is dyed dark as midnight with squid ink, with scatterings of black and white sesame seeds to further stress the color scheme. On the dinner menu, deli fare goes Italian in a winking concoction of caraway rye rigatoni tossed in a pastrami ragu and dabs of oil infused with mustard.<br /><br />Duck meatball sandwich; Pastrami sandwich<br /><br />At lunch, the restaurant's most straightforward meal, the interpretation is transparent: a walloping pastrami sandwich on rye with cabbage slaw, Russian dressing, and a slathering of yellow mustard. In terms of excellence, it beat a basic, satisfying grilled cheese oozing cheddar lava between slices of roasted potato bread, but the pastrami number couldn't best the outstanding duck meatball sandwich. Kulp rejiggers the Italian-American standard by simmering the meatballs in tomato sauce, slicking the semolina hoagie roll with liver mousse, and sealing in the ingredients with barely melted Swiss cheese.<br /><br />High Street (the old name for Market Street, one of the city's main thoroughfares) is all about the bready pleasures. Even if you order a sandwich, consider doubling down with the $4 bread service, worth it for thick, chewy slices of anadama rich with cornmeal and rye. Or lighten the meal with vegetable revelries like the grilled broccoli salad (complex with blistered grapes, endive, and Marcona almonds) and easy-to-like sides such as roasted carrots with ginger and currants. For a fuller measure of Kulp's strengths I'd return next time for dinner. 308 Market Street, Philadelphia, 215-625-0988, website, Open for breakfast Monday - Friday, 7 - 11:30 a.m., Saturday - Sunday 8 a.m.-3:30 p.m.; lunch daily 11:30 a.m. - 3:30 p.m.; and dinner Tuesday - Thursday and Sunday 5:30 - 10 p.m., Friday - Saturday 5:30-10:30 p.m.<br /><br />Whole duck; duck salad<br /><br />Our duck had already seen quite a journey before it was presented tableside with a bouquet flowering from its derriere. The carcass had been hung and dried, Peking style, for a week before an air compressor inflated the space between its skin and flesh. It was then boiled in a vinegar mixture, dredged with baking powder, and basted with maltose over several days to achieve a glossy lacquer.<br /><br />We would soon be relishing the efforts in several forms. Roasted breast presented austerely on a round wooden platter, sauced with only drizzles of almond puree and dustings of Sichuan peppercorns—the better to savor the crackly skin and rosy meat without other flavor distractions. Sliced heart, as well as bits of leg and thigh skin and duck pastrami (previously prepared), arrayed over a refreshing salad that included celery leaves and baby artichokes. And for the finale: two fist-size orbs of ground leg meat bound with cream-drenched bread and pecorino, deep-fried, and finally braised in tomato agrodolce enhanced with liver and plenty of black pepper. Kulp and his crew can clearly do no wrong with duck meatballs.<br /><br />The bird feast, bridging the cuisines of China and Italy, whirled us through the five taste senses and an extravagance of textures. And it was but one aspect of our dinner. Fork lays out several routes for approaching a meal: One can order a standard format of starters ($14 to $18), pastas (available in half-portions for $16 to $19 or full for $26 to $29) and mains ($28 to $48). Compose a four-course meal from the a la carte choices and dessert for $70 per person. Or hand over the decisions entirely to the kitchen with the lengthier $95 tasting menu, which includes dishes created solely for this option.<br /><br />Fluke draped over buckwheat<br /><br />Our table strode the middle path with the four-courser, incorporating the duck (a frequent special meant for two) as part of our entrees. So many chefs concentrate their artistry into appetizers and peter out at entrees, but this meal only gained momentum. The starters were captivating enough: fluke sashimi cured with kombu, pounded like carpaccio, and draped over a curved buckwheat cracker like ghostly moss spreading across a rock. A rhubarb consommé that was refreshing and astringent but could have also used a sweet accent from strawberry. Pastas showed off the kitchen's prowess, with beauties like freeform lasagna noodles slinking over molten puddles of washed-rind cheese with scattered hen-of-the-woods mushrooms and porcini powder.<br /><br />The duck stole the night, though it had a worthy sidekick in branzino presented "en croute" by fusing the fish with a plank of pan de mie (baked at High Street next door, of course, as were other tempting breads) and serving it in a nicely acidic tamarind broth. Pastry chef and Eater Young Guns 2014 class member Sam Kincaid helped the evening finish strong with summery desserts that were intricate yet came together on the palate—a study of corn that included whiskey sabayon, sweet corn ice cream, roasted blueberries, and locally grown popcorn, and a gorgeous little tart filled with berry jam and brown butter custard that sidled up to local plums and berry sorbet.<br /><br />This is indeed a restaurant restored. 306 Market Street, Philadelphia, 215-625-9425, website, Open for lunch Wednesday - Friday 11:30 a.m. - 2 p.m., Sunday brunch 11 a.m. - 3 p.m., dinner Monday - Thursday 5:30 - 10:30 p.m., Saturday 5 - 10:30 p.m., Sunday 5 - 9:30 p.m. Email Bill at and follow him at @BillAddison.
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