SAVOR, THE REVIEW: Vive La Big Fork

Big Fork, a BYOB in Chadds Ford, feels more like France than the town in Montana. We’re glad.

 

Big Fork Restaurant
U.S. 202 and Ridge Road, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania,
(610) 358-8008

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Recomendations
Halibut “hunter style,” grilled chicken with jus
poulet, chile-rubbed
flat-iron steak, creamy polenta, apple crisp.

 

This BYOB

in Chadds Ford

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feels more like France than the town in Montana.

Some come just

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for the halibut.

 

It took a bit of reflection to decide the Big Fork Restaurant had the right name after all—and not because of the giant piece of flatware that graces one wall.

If chef-owner Kevin Diskin’s BYOB dining room was really intended to remind us of the town in Montana, it would use more than a few wagon-wheel chandeliers and some prints in the bathrooms to evoke it. In practice, Big Fork’s look and style owe more to Provence than the Great Plains, which is only fitting, given Diskin’s training at the Culinary Institute of America and experience at Philadelphia’s esteemed Le Bec-Fin. He deploys it here on a menu that features as much seafood as meat, and there’s not a buffalo steak in sight.

The restaurant occupies a rather small space, about 50 seats, bisected by a low dividing wall, but it doesn’t feel cramped, thanks to high ceilings and a sunny, pale yellow color scheme that sets off natural wood furniture. The room is filled with intimate tables, decorated with small sprays of flowers. With sparsely decorated walls soaring to a high gable, it looks more like farmhouse than hunting lodge. The menu follows the same trail. With a few exceptions, most dishes are prepared in a light, French style, supplemented with some haute-diner comfort classics.

What makes the Big Fork moniker apt is the location. You’re not going to stumble onto it by accident. In the restaurant’s case, though, it has nothing to do with distance. It’s the visibility, or lack of it. Big Fork is tucked away a few hundred yards off busy U.S. 202, in the last spot in Olde Ridge Village, a country-themed shopping strip across from Glen Eagle Square. (Nowadays the address is Chadds Ford, but old-timers call the area Concordville). It’s within two miles over the state line, but hard to find if you don’t know what you’re looking for.

Big Fork is one of the growing brigade of BYO restaurants that have captured so much of the fine dining market in Chester County. It’s even more economical than most; unlike many, it adds no charge for uncorking a bottle of wine.

The main draw is the taste and talent of chef Diskin, a CIA grad who cooked under Georges Perrier before moving on to Philadelphia landmarks such as Jake’s. Diskin’s sensibility is geared to refined interpretations of rustic French cooking, and his presentations are practical, not artistic—again, an artful take on something basic, not art for art’s sake.

Though the menu is seasonal, some dishes have been carried over for several months, so they’re obviously cornerstones of Diskin’s style: a flat-iron steak rubbed with chile pepper, halibut served “hunter style,” with pearl onions, mushrooms and bacon. There’s always a risotto, the ingredients changing to reflect the market.

The chef’s deft, sophisticated touch is displayed to best effect on the halibut, a cold-water flatfish that is larger and firmer than flounder. A mix of mushrooms and pearl onions with bacon lardoons might sound entirely too heavy, totally inappropriate, yet Diskin pulls it off by keeping the sauce feather light and using the freshest, most delicate tiny onions, cooked just enough. The dish would ennoble almost any white wine.

That’s not true of the other fish mainstay, mahi mahi in lemon-caper vinaigrette accompanied by fingerling potatoes, haricot vert and grape tomatoes. Mahi meat is a notch less firm and lighter than tuna, but Diskin’s gentle sauce would be overwhelmed by anything stronger than Pinot Grigio. The potatoes, cooked through—still firm but not dry—stood out among the sides.

Diskin’s touch is never heavy, even on his menu’s signature beef treatment, a chili-rubbed flat-iron steak (a fancy name for trimmed top blade chuck roast, a name which wouldn’t fetch anything like premium prices). The meat is coarse-grained but flavorful, especially with its crust of ground red pepper, which bites without bruising the taste buds. This is the one dish on the menu that’s ready to stand up to a big-bodied wine, including the Cline Zinfandel we brought.

By general acclamation, the best entrée we sampled was a half-chicken in a reduction of pan juices, a concentrated jolt of chicken essence fortified with the caramelized overtones of roasted carrots and onions. This is one of the rare chicken dishes that makes ordering America’s most overexposed main course taste new again.

Appetizers weren’t as uniformly dazzling. Duck salad featured appealingly chewy confit and fresh greens, but was dominated by the light, flaky pastry that topped it. A smoked salmon tart was balanced better, mixing the strong fish with a firm dose of capers. Perhaps best—and perhaps not coincidentally, the closest to its peasant roots—was a bowl of hearty potato-leek soup.

A few of the side dishes that come with entrées are also offered a la carte. None is better than a thick, rich creamy polenta that’s almost as rich as dessert. The other choices include ramekins of tangy macaroni and cheese, baked to a perfect crust, and a risotto—a more austere, less creamy interpretation than many, but overflowing with peas and chunks of diced butternut squash. Unfortunately, customers can’t substitute one side dish for another, something the menu warns, but something I’d failed to notice until I asked.

What I wanted to avoid was the one side dish I didn’t care for—indeed, the only dish of the meal that left me unimpressed: the garlic mashed potatoes. The term is almost a misnomer. Diskin does them in a nouvelle French style, puréed rather than mashed. They are just a tad firmer, in fact, than a soup. This is a nouveau French style made popular by Joel Robuchon, but I still prefer a homier, drier style, the kind of whipped potatoes that hold peaks. That might not mingle well with the French influence of the main courses, but would beat this rich, yet bland version, the rare dish on the menu that comes off as a bit precious.

I’d like to see what Diskin could do if he aimed for homespun potatoes instead of fancy French ones, because his desserts are masterpieces spun from the rough cloth of prosaic classics.

Oh, some of them sound uptown. Crème brûlée might sound and look impressive, but it’s really just egg custard topped with a fire-fused sugar crust—at least it is in Diskin’s version, a rich, sweet mixture served in wider-than-usual cups. The same is true of chocolate cake with a molten center. It’s a high-class version of church-supper fare, sophisticated in its dark-yet-sweet intensity—beyond sinful, beyond devil’s food, more like Satan’s secret stash.

Fruit desserts are more my passion, and Big Fork’s apple crisp ranks with any in the region. It is a concentrated layer of sweet, nicely spiced apples beneath a dense, grainy coating, its depth buoyed by a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Big Fork’s atmosphere is greatly enhanced by experienced waiters who know their jobs. They’re soft-spoken, well versed on the menu and attentive without being overbearing. The lower-level servers were much younger and prone to mistakes such as serving men before women and refilling half-empty glasses of sparkling water with tap from a pitcher. It didn’t spoil the meal, but keep it in mind if you’re the persnickety type.

There’s one more way in which Big Fork might be an apt name. Like the rugged terrain around Yellowstone, the restaurant feels as if it’s still a little wild, not yet fully formed. As Diskin expands his repertoire, the place could become a gem for wine-lovers, who are always looking for food equal to the challenge of their best bottles. All it would take is a little more red meat on the menu—lamb, venison, maybe even some buffalo. 

D

 

 

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