Nick Elmi and Fia Berisha’s new seventh-floor suburban restaurant combines Mediterranean seafood with a funky French sensibility.
It starts with the elevator ride.
There’s a drama in that – something inherent, hammered into all of us through decades of TV and movies, generations of knowing what an opening curtain means and how to see it in almost anything.
Seven floors up, the smooth ride and then the reveal: silver doors parting soundlessly, opening onto an expansive room, pale wood with dark accents, the floor-to-ceiling windows that let all the light and green spill in. Nick Elmi and Fia Berisha’s new restaurant, Lark (which sits atop their other new restaurant, the all-day cafe called the Landing Kitchen at the Ironworks, right on the river in Bala Cynwyd), is gorgeous. With broadly spaced tables, candlelit in the evenings. You walk in, and you feel like you can take a full breath for the first time all day.
This is all deliberate, of course. Designed, but thoughtful and effective. It’s also not the best thing about the place. Not even close.
Classics at the bar. A French 75 that seems perfectly appropriate at this elevation and boulevardiers that match the brown-liquor tone of the place. On the floor, the service is young, smiling, a little goofy, which is nice. There’s an energy in the room that builds as the tables start to fill. The air seems almost carbonated with it – like you can taste the bubbles on your tongue. Maybe it’s just spring. Maybe it’s those few extra minutes of daylight. But I don’t think so. I think it’s maybe that they get it. That everyone on the floor already knows how special this place is.
The menu is arranged by course, but the servers say that’s just a suggestion. Order whatever you like, however you like. App-pasta-entrée? Cool. Three apps, a steak and a bottle of wine? Also cool. It’s Mediterranean-style seafood, kind of. Mediterranean with a funky, Frenchy-modern side hustle that pairs crisp apples with the red snapper tartare and offers braised escargots over potato confit with vichyssoise butter. The sea urchin deviled eggs are the first clue that there’s something unusual going on here. It’s picnic food gone ridiculously glam, plated like an art installation, topped with crumbles of dried tomato, caper and olive. You eat the first one, and it’s delicious. The second is luxury. By the third, you sense a strange layering of flavors – a distinct strata of tastes that hit and recede. Salt and fat and spikes of dark sweetness from the tomato, chased by the bitter hit of caper and smoothed out by the slickness of the sea urchin roe. If you’re me, you eat the last egg like you’re starving, chasing a sensation that was gone almost before it registered.
The gnocco fritto is pure, beautiful junk – savory fried beignets, puffy like pillows, made to be torn up, stuffed with spoonfuls of spalciatella (the goopy middle of a perfect burrata) laced with preserved lemon and thin slices of prosciutto. Meat doughnuts, essentially. Reason to go all on their own.
But then it recurs, that feeling of complexity, of balanced layering that has nothing to do with just stacking ingredients upon ingredients and everything to do with balance. Handmade ravioli like flying saucers in formation, stuffed with roasted mushrooms and foie gras, in a sauce sweetened with pine-cone syrup and scattered with crushed hazelnuts. Chitarra blackened with squid ink, perfectly al dente, feeling so thrown-together with its little chunks of lobster and squid and yet poised with this silky, singing base of garlic butter on top of which every other flavor sits, unique and distinct.
That trick? That’s hard. We’ve got lots of chefs in Philly who can make something taste good – who can blend and combine interesting flavors into a cohesive, satisfying whole. But there are just a precious few – a half dozen, maybe – who can reach beyond that. Who aim, consistently, not for a marriage of flavors, but a symphony of them. Not a note, but a chord.
Elmi could make any plate of pasta he wants. He could make a crisp-skinned filet of roasted dorade set over planks of fennel and splashed with Calabrian chili oil and be happy enough if it tasted like hot fish.
But instead, he uses the plate as a stage and offers a layered, ideally balanced play of texture and flavor – the soft, warm flesh and the crisp skin, quartered olives for texture, eggplant puree for weight, that tremolo of chili heat accented by the sweetness of golden raisins that burst when you chew. It takes one kind of talent to make 10 things taste like one thing, a whole other kind of skill to make 10 things all taste like themselves and yet still play in the harmony of a single composed dish.
And that is what’s best about Lark – that for some reason, in this beautiful room out in Bala Cynwyd, Elmi is doing something that feels both brilliant and effortless at the same time. There’s magic in the place right now, a sense of everything – time, place, inspiration, talent – coming to a sharp point on the seventh floor of a new hotel built on the bones of an old iron foundry on the edge of the Schuylkill River . It works.
And I can’t wait for an excuse to him back.
3 Stars – Come from anywhere in the region
0 stars: stay away
★: come if you have no other options
★★: come if you’re in the neighborhood
★★★: come from anywhere in the region
★★★★: come from anywhere in the country
Published as “Down by the River” in the April 2022 issue of Philadelphia magazine.