REVIEW WRITTEN BY LEN LEAR
For Digital First Media
We first met Ellen Yin while having dinner at Fork shortly after she opened it in a pretty much deserted stretch of Market Street in Philly’s Old City 20 years ago. Ellen, who worked in small restaurants while growing up in Rumson, New Jersey, in the late 1970s, wrote a business plan for a restaurant while she was a student at the University of Pennsylvania, where she would later earn an MBA.
She always wanted to open a restaurant, but when she worked on the business plan, she learned there was no way she could afford to do it (and her parents thought she was crazy to even consider it). So Ellen worked in the health care field for a couple of years and finally saved up enough money to partner with a former Penn classmate, Roberto Sella, and aided by a Small Business Administration loan (since no bank is going to lend money to young people with no experience to open a restaurant), was able to open Fork at 306 Market St. in 1997.
Fork was just a neighborhood bistro with 60 seats and no bar which the two former business students were able to open with $300,000. (Today it would probably cost at least $2 million.) Yin admitted the odds were not necessarily in her favor, but I remember saying to my wife afterwards, “That woman is going to be a big success. A lot of young people have romantic, unrealistic notions about what it takes to run a successful restaurant, but Ellen definitely knows what she is doing.”
Now I have been wrong with a lot of my predictions (the recent Presidential election, for example), but if all of my predictions were as prescient as the one on Ellen Yin, I would be spending a lot of time in Atlantic City casinos. Today this one-time American Dreamer is in the upper tier of Philadelphia area restaurant entrepreneurs along with Stephen Starr, Marc Vetri, Michael Solomonov, Michael Schulson and Jose Garces.
In addition to Fork, Ellen has opened and operated mega-successful restaurants a.kitchen and a.bar just off Rittenhouse Square, High Street on Market and High Street on Hudson, which opened late in 2015 to glowing reviews in New York City’s West Village, near the new Whitney Museum. (Yin’s partner and chef at Fork, Eli Kulp, who was named “Best New Chef” in 2014 by Food & Wine Magazine, was paralyzed in the tragic Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia in May, 2015, that left eight people dead and more than 200 injured.)
High Street on Market, which opened in 2013 right next door to Fork in a space they formerly used for baking and private dining events, serves three meals a day. One might say that many of their dishes push the farm-to-table concept out of its comfort zone, which is probably a good thing. With the relentless proliferation of new restaurants and new trends, the competition is just too omnipresent to become stultified.
Unlike so many restaurants that are best known for their seafood or meats or pasta, High Street is best known for its (excuse the expression) carbohydrates. Now, breadmaking is a hypnotic, sometimes addictive business. The legendary food writer M.F.K. Fisher wrote that “no chiropractic treatment, no yoga exercise, no hour of meditation will leave you emptier of bad thoughts than the homely ceremony of making bread.”
Therefore, High Street’s baker, Alex Bois, who came here from New York with a national reputation, must have omnipresent good thoughts. He makes artisan breads you may have never heard of with flour from a local mill that are simply ambrosial — buckwheat cherry, anadama miche with molasses and cracked corn, seeded semolina, roasted potato bread, marbled levain bread, etc. One is more dense and flavorful than the next. Therefore, you simply must get the daily breads with spreads like charred eggplant and seasonal fruit jam ($6). Americans, unlike Europeans, are not used to paying for bread in restaurants, but I don’t think anyone will mind in this case. The only other restaurant in the region whose selection of breads can compare to these is Parc on Rittenhouse Square.
Some of the dishes that blew us away were the heart-smart, satiny cauliflower caramelle with buttermilk and rosemary ($14), the hand-crafted, indulgent “angry” crab spaghetti with old bay and charred scallion ($16), the robust, velvety, spicy broccoli with chow-chow and scallion ($11), and the exquisite, drool-worthy, succulent textured Kennett Square mushrooms with sunchoke and charred eggplant ($17). There is a glorious spirit of independence in this food that does not follow the crowd.
High Street serves all domestic wines from small producers, but the wines, all $13 by the glass, are not exactly memorable. There is also a modest selection of beers, cocktails and whiskeys. The “High Street” in the restaurant’s name, by the way, does not necessarily describe the way you feel after eating here, although it might. It was the name in the Colonial era of what is now Market Street. (Every old English town to this day has a High Street.)
Our server, Avery, could not have been more pleasant, knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the food. The Bourse Theater parking garage on 4th Street, between Market and Chestnut, on the west side of the street, one block from the restaurant, for just $9 at night, might be the best parking bargain in center city. For more information, call 215-625-0988 or visit www.highstreetonmarket.com.