Euro-food and a killer beer list keep it cozy at Fork & Barrel.
Fork & Barrel could so easily have devolved into caricature—the Monks-y, Eurocentric beer selection, the focus on hot dog variations upstairs and beer-cafe food downstairs, the whole candlelight thing—but it doesn’t. In fact, though it’s still a young spot with some glitches, this thoroughly appealing new East Falls destination is exactly what the neighborhood needs, and is a great replacement for the Pour House.
We’ll get to the food in a minute, but any discussion of Fork & Barrel has to start with its beer program, one of the more exciting in a while. Drafts rotate with relative frequency; with the hard-to-find or otherwise idiosyncratic European brews here, it’s worth a fairly regular visit to see what’s been added since you last stopped by. The bottle selection, which currently boasts well over a hundred options, is intelligently divided into categories based on flavor, aroma and body, like “Stiff & Brawny, Snifter- Worthy Gems,” “Smokey & Autumnal” and “Earthy, Moody, Rustic.”
A list this long and unfamiliar could easily have grown into a shaggy, in-club monster. But the staff is very well-trained in beery specifics by Matt Scheller (who wrote the list and owns F&B with Matthew Swartz and wife Colleen), and servers are as enthusiastic and knowledgeable about their brews as most sommeliers. They’re an invaluable resource for talking through the options and suggesting pairings.
The highlight pairing of a recent visit was one of the best food-and-beverage matches I’ve had all year—the result of our waiter’s suggestion that the Birrificio Montegioco Quarta Runa, an Italian ale with a subtle but unmistakable perfume from the inclusion of peaches in the brew, might work well with the grilled cheese. He was spot on. The funky-fruity combination of Brie, thin-sliced Granny Smiths and homemade apple butter was the perfect foil for the ale.
Even desserts are tailored to sudsier ends—chocolate-chip bread pudding, more hearty and austere than the creamier versions usually found in these parts, paired well with the sweet honey tones of the (14 percent abv!) Samichlaus Helles from Austria, and the peach crisp worked wonders with the last drops of that Quarta Runa.
Like that grilled cheese, the best dishes here are the simplest. The house-made Bavarian pretzel provides ample justification for another round even if you’re neither hungry nor particularly thirsty. The nuttiness of the mahogany, salt-flecked crust gives way to an interior of perfect density and chewiness. Spicy blue-cheese-scented mustard and a less impressive but still pleasant honey mustard are nice options, but not strictly necessary: I found myself avoiding distractions from the pretzel’s interaction with Nogne-O Imperial Brown Ale, a silky Norwegian refresher with soul to spare.
Rosemary-scented, Maytag blue-cheese-blanketed lamb burger arrived sandwiched between split halves of a Thomas’ English muffin, a move that often results in a soggy, impossible-to-hold mess by the fourth bite. This worked, though—the burger, generously portioned but not unwieldy, was easily encased by the muffin, whose own intimation of sweetness was an excellent bookend to the gaminess of the ground lamb.
Wild-boar bratwurst highlighted everything that makes this animal such a treat—the slight chew, the hint of sweetness balanced with a gamy background tang. Braised cabbage was shown more love than it usually gets: A potato, carrot, housemade demi and Spaten Dunkel stew treated the veggie with an unusual respect, providing a great background for the wurst and a sense of sweetness that made the next bite seem a desperate necessity.
This is a young restaurant, however, and the kitchen is not immune to slip-ups. Borscht was boring, a virtually unseasoned, watery bowl that barely hinted at the richness and rib-stickiness that my Eastern European ancestors relied on in wintertime. The few pâte à choux dumplings marooned in there were gluey, like gnocchi gone wrong. Caesar salad was more successful, its honey-dijon, roasted-garlic and Argentine parmesan dressing a nice change of pace, but seemed a dieter’s concession on a menu with such a strong focus on Eastern and Northern Europe. Belgian mussels were plump and meaty, but the zip implied by the presence of Flemish red ale was all but missing, and the snowfall of nearly-raw garlic threatened to overwhelm the thyme and apple-cider bacon.
Still, the food is in general thoughtfully conceived and well-prepared, and the hits far outweigh the few misses. Chef Peter Felton, who has worked with the owners at their other restaurants in Emmaus and Bethlehem, has the talent and drive to make F&B as much of a food destination as it is a beer one.
As we head into the cold, gray misery of another Philly winter, this is an appealing, cozy spot to drink a bit too much, have a rich, beer-friendly meal and head home supremely satisfied.
Fork & Barrel
4213 Ridge Ave.
Cuisine: Beer-friendly, Northern and Eastern European-leaning.
Hours: Tues.-Sun., 4pm-2am; kitchen closes at 11pm.
Atmosphere: Candle-lit and cozy.
Service: One of the most beer-knowledgeable staffs around, and very willing to provide all the guidance you need.
Food: Hearty and very beer-friendly.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014