RATING |

It never ceases to amaze me how deftly Fork defies conventional expectations.

To begin with, it's one of the few restaurants that's gotten better over the course of two decades, and not by a small margin.

The seamless contemporary dining experience that unfolds these days beside its open kitchen and birchwood forest mural — whole animals turned into four-course feasts on a plank (including a Nashville "hot rabbit"); clams that smoke inside a tabletop terrarium (and return as a later course); the tiniest whole veggies I've ever seen served on ice like crudité jewels — is infinitely more surprising, sophisticated, and relevant than the pleasant bistro Ellen Yin cofounded in 1997.

Yin's eye for the details of polished professionalism have remained a constant. The kitchen's recent meteoric rise was suddenly in jeopardy, though, after a tragic Amtrak crash left its supremely talented chef and partner, Eli Kulp, paralyzed in a wheelchair.

But Fork has triumphed over the dire expectations of that challenge, too. It rises now to four bells on the strength of service and kitchen staffs built by Yin and Kulp (still culinary director), whose ever-splendid performances prove long-earned team success can be more enduring than an individual.

Nonetheless, the emergence of chef John Patterson as one of Philly's new culinary stars is a thrill, as the Grammercy Tavern (and Restaurant School) alum continues Kulp's dedication to hyper-seasonality, heritage grain, and creative wit for food that hints at a local backstory.

The reason that a seemingly simple tomato pasta so vividly evokes a garden patch in summer? The spaghetti is infused with pureed tomato leaves.

Meanwhile, underappreciated local seafoods were put on a pedestal at one of the ever-changing $55 Wednesday tasting menu deals: Cape May conch shaved with hakkurei turnips and grapefruit into a gorgeous ceviche; eel from Norristown smoked and served like caviar in a crystal bowl beside soft-scrambled eggs. Local rabbit came with foraged greens, a buckwheat pretzel, and deliciously livery rabbit kidney dumplings.

I cleansed my palate with sweet woodruff sorbet. Patterson's low-rise take on lasagna stunned with its complexity, a single egg noodle conducting the funky power between the woodsy fried maitakes and molten Red Cat cheese on opposite sides of its silky sheet.

With a fluffy 10-egg frittata for two baked in an iron crock with butter-poached lobster, Fork takes brunch to a luxurious new level, too. Add Samantha Kincaid's inventive desserts, a stellar yet affordable Euro wine list, with a personable staff to make smart pairings, and Fork has matured into one of the most compellingly evolved special-occasion dining experiences in Philadelphia today.

As it spend the better part of this year with a host of special events to celebrate its 20th anniversary of constant reinvention, I'm confident Fork will do so with the conviction that its best days, remarkably, are likely still to come.