I’ve never subscribed to the tired, city-centric fallacy that there are few great restaurants in the suburbs. I regularly seek good things to eat beyond the city limits from Delco to West Chester and South Jersey and, a few years ago, I devoted an entire dining guide to the culinary treasures of the counties surrounding Philadelphia.
But as I took a bracing sip of my boulevardier the other night at Lark and savored the earthy delicacy of a mushroom ravioli glossed with molten foie gras, I gazed out from its seventh-floor dining room onto the Manayunk hills twinkling just across the Schuylkill, and had to admit: This lofty new addition to Bala Cynwyd is something special.
From its impressive space to its warm service and refined cooking, Lark offers a new height for Main Line dining in more ways than one. It’s breezy up there on the restaurant’s broad terrace, where fire pits blaze atop the Residence Inn that rises over the Ironworks at Pencoyd Landing. The Landing Kitchen, the casual all-day cafe on the ground level, has already begun to redefine the possibilities for this postindustrial riverfront. But the culinary ambitions are significantly higher in this upscale new counterpart, a spacious aerie with 100 seats including its gracious quartz long bar, plus more room for private dining. Partner Fia Berisha says she occasionally sees bald eagles gliding past the windows, not to mention larks, chosen as the restaurant’s namesake because it sings while it soars.
Modern, complex flavors
The culinary tune coming from Lark’s kitchen, overseen by chef-partner Nicholas Elmi and executive chef Michael Millon, has an effortless elegance to it, with modern takes on Mediterranean seafood that convey vivid, complex flavors without ever feeling overwrought.
A tender arm of octopus infused with rosemary and citrus curls around grilled clams and a chorizo-spiced gravy studded with whole chickpeas ringed by intensely savory dots over black olive caramel. Deviled eggs bring a touch of surf to the picnic favorite with the addition of creamy sea urchin dusted with dehydrated tomatoes, olives, capers and candied garlic, a powdered zest our server wryly described as “puttanessence.”
Shrimp cocktail channeled Canary Island spice with rust-colored dabs of mojo Picón, a punchy blend of chiles, shrimp paste, fennel, and garlic. Lark’s beautiful snapper tartare, meanwhile, gave a light dish some well-placed winter flourishes. A fluttering top layer of sunchoke chips for texture. The tangy richness of buttermilk dressing. A finishing pinch of vadouvan curry scented with fenugreek and curry leaf gave each bite of pristinely diced raw fish an earthy savor.
» READ MORE: Craig LaBan's guide to dining in the suburbs
Elmi confesses that he’s been “surprised at how many people will drive past a cemetery, under a bridge, into a hotel and then up to the seventh floor” for dinner. He shouldn’t be. The fact that crowds that have been swarming to this out-of-the-way dining room in a new development is proof that the confluence of vision, resources, and talent are all that’s needed to create a fine-dining magnet.
The vision and resources come from Penn Group developer Donna Galvin, the driving force behind the Ironworks redevelopment who recruited Elmi and Berisha to join her as consultants, before the two quickly became convinced of the possibilities and signed on as partners in the restaurant projects.
Elmi is the talent with marquee star power, the onetime Top Chef champ behind the gastronomic tasting menus at tiny Laurel on East Passyunk Avenue. You’ll find some of his signature moves, including a steady devotion to escargot with hazelnut butter that dates to his time at Le Bec-Fin, and later Royal Boucherie (where he’s no longer a partner). The plump and tender gastropods at Lark are served in a shiny crock of vivid potato-leek puree, a pond green sauce brightened with preserved lemon that’s also an irresistible dip for the crusty baguette served on the side.
Berisha is a front-house talent not to be overlooked. The Mistral alum, who previously owned Aether in Fishtown, created the restaurant’s engaging design, warming the airy room with lots of forest green and textured wallpaper, wood touches from local artisan Kirk Loubier, and railroad steel accents by Stu Kinckner. Berisha oversaw extensive soundproofing to help dampen the noise of the hard wood surfaces. Details like the sleekly molded walnut chairs from Rove Concepts and green velvet banquettes, backed by huge wood framed mirrors that reflect the outdoors into the sunny space, help make Lark one of the most appealingly designed big-budget projects of the last couple years.
Berisha is also behind the informative service staff, along with comanager Kevin Krop, and the excellent cocktails — both the smart riffs on classics like that boulevardier, creative signatures like the gotcha! blend of mezcal, Chartreuse, and Luxardo, as well as thoughtful nonalcoholic alternatives such as the hibiscus-hued Magenta Sunset.
Comanager Christy Nguyen, last at Royal Izakaya, has taken ownership of a wine list that includes a growing collection of smart Euro options (bottles from Savoie and Alsace, Spain’s Lopez de Heredia, Austria, Sicily, and Arbois), but also premium sake (Kaze No Mori) as an intriguing pairing for the crispy-skinned dorade.
One more important name to remember at Lark is Millon, whose strong background of Italian cooking — most recently at Fairmount’s A Mano — shines in some of this menu’s most memorable dishes.
House-extruded pastas are among the exceptional examples, each made with a unique dough for a distinctive pairings. Squid ink tints the square-cut strands of chitarra jet black for a medley of lobster and calamari in a lobster broth enriched with truffle butter. Porcini powder is the secret that gives the mushroom ravioli depth before a foie gras butter with luxurious richness touched with the herbaceous forest flavor of mugolio pine cone syrup.
Toasty farro lends a nutty note to the creste di gallo elbows tossed with pork ragù, whose tender pork cheek nuggets were among Lark’s few meat highlights. An appetizer of silky prosciutto served with lemon-whipped ricotta and crispy pillows of gnocco frito was the other. (The duck breast with turnips was fine, but the skin wasn’t well-rendered, and the meat was less than tender).
My favorite pasta was the strozzapreti that showcased Philly’s favorite seafood garnish — crab. Pink peppercorns in the dough left a lightly numbing buzz on my lips as those twisty, grooved noodles slipped by cradling sweet jewels of lump meat. An intense crab broth lit with chiles cranked the crustacean volume to 10, punctuated by the crunch of Old Bay-scented bread crumbs and shaved green pea leaves.
That talent for coaxing big flavors from seemingly minimalist presentations, an effective approach to showcase great seafood, was also evident in the fish entrees. And I loved the silvery dorade, a fish lover’s fish whose Mediterranean bona fides were accentuated by orange-braised fennel, a roasted eggplant puree, and a caponata-style vinaigrette.
But I was even more entranced by the subtlety of the trout.
Grill smoke infuses the crispy skin and delicate flesh of its slender fillet, which arrives balanced atop a buttery berm of basmati rice sparked with preserved lemon. That seemingly austerely presentation, though, quickly melts into creamy swipes of cauliflower puree, brown butter sauce, and the wintry brightness of Meyer lemon essence. Slivered almonds and juicy green grapes tossed in with roasted cauliflower florets over top add even more sparks of texture and flavor.
A dinner at Lark can glide along so smoothly, it’s easy to forget this restaurant’s staff is only at 70% of its ideal number, despite opening five months later than expected.
You’ll realize the kitchen’s limitations, though. The abbreviated list of three desserts, whose best option made in-house without a pastry chef is an airy budino flavored with coffee, rum, and chocolate. And then there is the bespoke Lark bar, a sublime 72% dark chocolate filled with creamy hazelnut praline made by West Chester’s masterful Éclat Chocolate. It’s gift wrapped on a plate ready to stay or go, and not only is it big enough to savor for a couple days once you leave, at $10, it feels like a bargain for Éclat. Yet another reason to fly to Lark.
The Inquirer is not currently giving bell ratings to restaurants due to the pandemic.
The Ironworks at Pencoyd Landing, 611 Righters Ferry Rd., Bala Cynwyd, 484-434-8766
Dinner Tuesday through Saturday, 5-10 p.m. Closed Sunday and Monday.
Pastas and entrees, $16-$54.
Reservations recommended, but 20-plus seats reserved for walk-ins at the bar.