The term "upscale casual" gets thrown around fairly liberally in the restaurant world. And, just as the equally oxymoronic "business casual" is to dress, it's not something you can necessarily quantify; you just know it when you see it. And you can see (and taste it) at at Fork in Lincoln Square.
Fork is a big place, consisting of two large rooms: the front with a long bar and a nice mix of semi-circle booths and candle-lit tables; the back room has a fireplace to cozy up to. There's even a two-headed patio (half on Wilson, half on Lincoln), which will be opening shortly. They do a brisk brunch business on weekends, and dinners during the week, featuring seasonal menus and foraged mushrooms.
The burrata ($10) is a great way to start. The creamy cheese is laid in a bowl and adorned with pistachio pesto, fleur de sel, and grape tomatoes. The pistachio pesto is not garlic-heavy, which really lets the pistachios shine. The tomato jam on the side is a sweet counterpoint to throw in the mix.
Charcuterie and cheese boards are a big part of the menu; we went with the Italian Charcuterie ($12), featuring copa, finocchiona, and speck. The finocchiona was one of the best bites of the evening, a wonderful pork salami akin to a hard salami, but teeming with fennel. The speck looks like prosciutto, and has a great, velvety texture. It is salty with a delicate smoke flavor coming through. The copa is a cured ham made from pork shoulder and neck meats. It is rich, fatty, a bit gamey, and a tad dry. It is all served up with grainy mustard, toasted bread, and pickles.
I'm not sure who the resident forager is, but foraged mushrooms make more than one appearance on the menu (and this post). It's just a fun image, out foraging for mushrooms; makes me think of Super Mario Bros. for some reason. See? Now you've got the Super Mario theme in your head, right?
The giant, housemade gnocchi($11) feature both foraged and tame mushrooms alike, as well as fennel, parmesan cream, truffle oil and shaved leeks. The leeks, essentially a garnish, add a nice flavor that seemed to be missing. The cream is heavy, with deep earthy flavors—a little goes a long way. And those 'shrooms are indeed some tasty fungi.
The garlic cilantro fries ($6) sound so right, but don't quite live up to the hype. They are nice, hand-cut spuds, but they arrived a few degrees shy of freshly fried, and a bit under-salted. The cilantro is understated and the garlic overly so, and it's as pungent as you would imagine. The mince is also a bit unwieldy, and not very user-friendly. They are served with a straightforward sriracha aioli.
And then there's dessert. I'm not a dessert guy, usually, but the sticky toffee cake ($7) can make a believer out of most anyone. A super-moist Bundt cake is topped with a scoop of Revolution Eugene porter ice cream, then doused in rich, buttery toffee sauce. The sponginess of the cake is great for mopping up the excess of the decadent sauce. It is indulgent, decadent, unnecessary, but you're worth it.
Fork invites you to sit down and have some good food paired with good drinks. I remember when they opened, they stood out not only for their formidable craft beer list, but also the fact that they offered everything in six ounce pours, which is complementary to the smaller plate feel of the place. A little of this, a little of that, with friendly, knowledgeable staff, and no pretenses. I'm still not 100% sure that's upscale casual, but it's certainly worth checking out.
Josh Conley is single-handedly trying to re-introduce the verb beget into the everyday lexicon. He traveled to Easter Island one Christmas out of sheer irony. He excises a hefty syntax, and shamelessly promotes the color orange. His wife begat him two small children that he regularly belittles HERE.