Fork's changing tines

Ellen Yin, essential founder and hostess, marks the Old City restaurant's 10th anniversary with thoughts of resetting the table.

Posted: September 06, 2007

It's 5:10 p.m. whenFork restaurateur Ellen Yin learns the kitchen is low on zucchini blossoms and black rice.

There's a long list of reservations for the main dining room of the Old City restaurant and private parties are scheduled in both back rooms; still, the menu can't be printed until Yin decides what to call the sauce that chef Thien Ngo created on a whim this afternoon.

The sauce doesn't need a catchy name, just a straightforward description. Because, like Yin herself, Fork's lunch and dinner menus need no adulteration.

On Yin, a fitted black tank and knit pants are the essence of elegant simplicity. She is as she appears: flexible, unflappable, generous - and, yes, happy.

This "Chinese girl from Central Jersey," as she describes herself, is credited with igniting the Old City restaurant scene.

Amada, Buddakan - none of the esteemed eateries that define Old City as a destination now were around a decade ago when Yin rode down Market Street on the Raleigh three-speed bike that was a gift from her father on her 11th birthday, searching for a suitable site for her dream bistro.

She picked a place within shouting distance of Pants Corner Plus and next to a Dollar Store, and succeeded in changing the way people in Philadelphia and beyond thought about the nascent neighborhood.

Now, to celebrate Fork's 10th anniversary, Yin and her business partner, wine specialist Roberto Sella, have published Forklore: Recipes and Tales From an American Bistro. It is a lushly photographed cookbook with recipes that represent the seasons as well as the regions of the world they've traveled.

"Ten years is such a big landmark and a wonderful achievement, with everything you have going against you," says Jose Garces, the chef/owner of Amada, which debuted in 2005.

Chef David Ansill, who was working across the street at Lucy's Hat Shop when Fork opened and now has his own highly regarded restaurant and wine bar, says Fork "was the first little-more-upscale restaurant in the neighborhood. And then all of a sudden Old City just started going crazy."

By 2000, Stephen Starr had opened Continental, Buddakan and Tangerine within a four-block radius in Old City.

"Ellen provided a stepping-stone for expanding the boundaries of Center City," Ansill said. "Opening a restaurant in general is a risky business. But Ellen seems to have vision. She knew what she was doing. It's always been a great place."

Yin grew up in Rumson, N.J., where her mother, who was from Shanghai, and her father, from Hunan province, served nightly smorgasbords of traditional Chinese dishes made with seaweed, jellyfish, braised oxtails and chicken feet.

She loved it, but "I envied the other kids their TV dinners with the instant mashed potatoes."

Yin learned to roll and wrap dumplings from her mother and grandmother. She started baking in high school home economics. And at 16, she got her first job, making spring rolls at a Chinese restaurant.

But her primary fascination was with "the front of the house." So she took a job busing tables at an upscale French restaurant near Rumson and learned how the other half eats.

"I had never eaten at a restaurant that had tables set with fine tablecloths, silver and stemware," says Yin, who also never took a cooking class.

"At home, we just used chopsticks and maybe a spoon."

Just 18, Yin knew she wanted her own restaurant someday.

She earned a business degree from Penn's Wharton School and a master's in business administration in health-care administration, but spent most of her college years working in restaurants: making desserts for a student-run cafe using just the toaster oven in her dorm room; waiting tables at La Terrasse; and bartending at the White Dog Cafe. She was working for a nonprofit when one day, at age 31, she flipped through yet another issue of Food & Wine magazine and realized that her moment had come.

"Almost every featured restaurateur was between the ages of 25 and 45. If they could do it, why couldn't I?"

The coconut-crusted salmon with citrus-chive coulis, Chinese black rice, sauteed summer squash, peppers and shiitakes will be made with white rice tonight, Yin tells the waitstaff assembled for their daily menu update.

Crispy okra will replace the zucchini blossoms in the escarole salad. And Ngo's new sauce, a blend of dark chocolate, white-wine vinegar, and a touch of mustard, will be described as simply dark chocolate, white-wine vinegar sauce.

From the start, Yin envisioned Fork as a "New American bistro," and it's been a success with critics and customers.

But no restaurant can remain static, and now some critics wonder if Fork is still on the cutting edge.

When the competition first moved in, Fork became a seven-day-a-week operation. Yin initiated wine tastings, beer dinners, and collaborative dinners with visiting chefs.

In November 2004, she added private dining rooms and opened Fork, etc., an eat-in/takeout/catering space offering prepared dishes (crabcakes, pork and poblano sandwiches, crispy duck confit), baguettes, sweets, and artisan cheeses.

Fork, etc. offers a weekly Chef's Bistro Dinner, with a prix fixe menu served at a community table. And while those dinners are popular, Yin says, Fork, etc. doesn't sell enough of the highly perishable prepared dishes and cheeses. She hasn't decided yet how to improve the side business.

"A restaurant that doesn't reinvent itself on an ongoing basis doesn't survive," says Yin, who travels frequently to Paris and Tuscany, always returning inspired with new recipes.

But cutting edge?

Yin says she wouldn't want the food at Fork to be "over-plated." Besides, she is a hostess at heart. She delights in pleasing customers, and she's cautious about putting the need to be new over the dining room's essential ambience.

"I'm a tough critic," says Garces of Amada. "But I'd say they manage to stay pretty contemporary. They definitely have good intentions. . . . and it's the only place in the neighborhood where I'll go for lunch."

Fork has a legion of loyal longtime customers.

Mindy Posoff and Marlene Olshan, who try every new place in the city and beyond, keep coming back.

"The restaurant's great," says Posoff, who works in financial services. "But Ellen's presence is what really sets Fork apart."

Therein lies the contradiction, of which Yin's boyfriend, Wayne Aretz, is acutely aware:

"Ellen's personality is integral to Fork," says Aretz, a former Internet technology consultant who shares Yin's passion for fine food and wine. "But she doesn't see that for the positive it is."

Yin is inclined by nature to share the credit for Fork's success and her own accomplishments.

It's torturous for her to have her face on the cookbook cover, Aretz says. And Yin admits she wanted the Fork icon in that spot.

"When people think of Buddakan," Aretz says, "they think of the statue and the style of the restaurant. They don't think of [owner] Stephen Starr. But here, he says, they think of Ellen. She is Fork."


Sweet-Potato Lemongrass Soup         

Makes 4 to 6 servings

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 large white onion, diced

1 (2-inch) piece gingerroot, peeled and minced

1 jalapeno, seeded, minced

4 cloves garlic, minced

3 pounds sweet potatoes (about 5 large), peeled and cut into 1/2-inch slices

7 cups water, approximate

10 stalks lemongrass, outer dry leaves removed and bulblike base crushed

7 ounces coconut milk

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Chives for garnish

1. In a large, heavy saucepot, heat the oil medium-hot and saute the onion until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the ginger, jalapeno and garlic and saute 2 minutes more.

2. Add the sweet potatoes and water. It should be just enough water to cover the sweet potatoes.

3. Tie the lemongrass stalks together with string and put the bulb/base ends into the soup. Bring the liquid to a boil, reduce heat, and let simmer until the potatoes break apart, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat.

4. Discard the lemongrass stalks. Puree the soup in batches using a food processor or immersion blender. Strain the soup through a fine sieve. Stir in the coconut milk. Season with salt and pepper. Garnish with chives.

- From Forklore by Ellen Yin (Temple University Press, 2007)

Per serving (based on 6): 352 calories, 5 grams protein, 52 grams carbohydrates, 12 grams sugar, 15 grams fat, no cholesterol, 131 milligrams sodium, 8 grams dietary fiber.


Roasted Beets, Kiwi and Baby Greens With Green-Peppercorn Vinaigrette

Makes 4 appetizer servings or 2 lunch entrees

For the vinaigrette:

1 tablespoon brined green

peppercorns, drained

1/3 cup white-wine or

white balsamic vinegar

1 shallot, minced

1 clove garlic, minced

4 teaspoons honey

1 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper

2/3 cup olive oil

For the salad:

4 medium red beets, roasted, cut into quarters (eighths if large), see Note

4 ripe kiwis, peeled, cut into quarters

Baby arugula or other baby greens (about 4 ounces)

1. For the vinaigrette: In a blender, mix the peppercorns, vinegar, shallot, garlic, honey, salt and pepper, and puree.

2. With the motor running, add the oil in a slow, steady stream. Blend until emulsified. Transfer to a container; set aside. (Can be made up to a week ahead and refrigerated.)

3. For the salad: In a bowl, mix the beets and kiwis with 1/4 cup of the vinaigrette. Divide equally on 4 chilled plates. Surround with greens. Drizzle dressing around salads.

- From Forklore by Ellen Yin (Temple University Press, 2007)

Note: To roast beets, up to 2 days ahead, wash, trim and put beets in a pan with water to cover. Cover with foil. Roast at 350 degrees until fork tender, about 1 hour. Let cool in the liquid. Peel by hand or with knife. Refrigerate.

Per serving (based on 4): 459 calories, 3 grams protein, 28 grams carbohydrates, 20 grams sugar, 37 grams fat, no cholesterol, 657 milligrams sodium, 6 grams dietary fiber.


Pasta Puttanesca   

Makes 6 appetizer or 4 entree servings

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 garlic cloves, mashed to a paste

1/2 tablespoon anchovy paste or minced anchovies

1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1/3 cup dry white wine

1 tablespoon chopped capers

1/4 cup pitted black olives, chopped

1 pound fresh tomatoes, seeded, drained and diced

Juice of 1/2 lemon (about 1 tablespoon)

Black pepper to taste

1 cup fresh parsley leaves, chopped

Shaved Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, to taste

1. In a large saute pan, heat the oil medium-hot. Briefly saute the garlic, anchovy paste, and red pepper flakes.

2. Add the wine and let simmer for about 2 minutes. Add the capers, olives and tomatoes. Cook until the tomatoes just start to break down. Reduce heat to low.

3. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil and cook the pasta al dente as directed on box. Reserve 1/2 cup of the cooking water, then drain the pasta.

4. To the sauce, add the lemon juice and reserved pasta cooking water. Adjust seasoning with pepper. Add parsley.

5. Toss the pasta with the sauce. Add shaved cheese. Serve at once, passing additional cheese if desired.

- From Forklore by Ellen Yin (Temple University Press, 2007)

Per serving (based on 6): 405 calories, 12 grams protein, 62 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar, 12 grams fat, 2 milligrams cholesterol, 141 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.


Pan-Seared Scallops With Brown Butter, Hazelnuts, White Truffle Oil, Asparagus

Makes 4 servings

3 tablespoons extra-virgin

olive oil

Salt and pepper

12 or 16 jumbo sea scallops, about 11/2 pounds (see note)

9 tablespoons unsalted butter (preferably clarified)

11/2 ounces hazelnuts,

chopped and toasted

2 tablespoons chopped

parsley, divided use

1 or 2 drops white truffle oil (optional)

1 pound roasted fingerling potatoes (see note)

1 pound blanched asparagus (see note)

1. Heat a nonstick saute pan very hot. Add the olive oil. Season scallops lightly with salt and pepper and saute in the hot oil until golden brown, about 2 minutes on one side, then turn. After searing for 1 minute on the other side, add the butter and hazelnuts. When the scallops are seared, remove from the pan to a plate and keep warm.

2. Add the lemon juice to the butter and hazelnuts in the pan. When the butter has browned, add half of the parsley and, if using, the truffle oil. Toss the potatoes and asparagus in the butter in pan and heat through.

3. Arrange the vegetables on serving plates. Position the scallops over the vegetables. Finish with remaining parsley. Drizzle the remaining brown butter over the scallops.

- From Forklore by Ellen Yin (Temple University Press)

Note: Use fresh, untreated "dry" scallops (ivory). Scallops treated with preservatives stay white and wet, but the excess water causes them to steam rather than sear when cooked.

For potatoes, halve 1 pound of fingerlings lengthwise, toss with 1/4 cup olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Roast at 400 degrees until tender, 15 to 20 minutes.

For the asparagus, wash and trim 1 pound and blanch in boiling salted water until asparagus is bright green, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove and plunge into ice water to stop cooking.

Per serving: 659 calories, 36 grams protein, 29 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams sugar, 46 grams fat, 129 milligrams cholesterol, 430 milligrams sodium, 6 grams dietary fiber.


Contact staff writer Dianna Marder at 215-854-4211 or dmarder@phillynews.com. Read her recent work at http:// go.philly.com/diannamarder.

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