Most of Haddon Avenue, a burgeoning restaurant row in southwest New Jersey, runs through two BYOB towns, Haddonfield and Collingswood. Wedged between them, the sliver of Haddon Township called Westmont offers a liquor-license oasis, and on that wet strip of Haddon Avenue, Philadelphia restaurateur Kevin Meeker opened Cork in 2005.
Designer martinis, twenty wines by the glass, and a serious selection of draft beers levitate a lively bar scene, the atmosphere stylish even with two TV monitors piping in sports. (Live jazz is on tap on Fridays.) Perfectly in tune with all this is the left side of the dinner menu, with a dozen “small plates” and four “solo pizzas.” It is here that Cork’s eclecticism comes out strutting.
Spin the globe: Choices include a Mediterranean Plate of garlic hummus, Greek olives, and feta salad; tempura calamari with spicy aioli; Prince Edward Island mussels in coconut milk with lemongrass; vegetable spring rolls with citrus chili sauce; and that South Jersey staple, crab cake.
In two visits, we sample the crab cake (good if you favor the finely shredded type, but no match for the Maryland lump-style original); braised short ribs (not quite falling-off-the-bone tender, but flavorful and satisfying, especially with its creamy accompaniment of celery-root mash); and expertly fried crisp smelts with anchovy-garlic butter. These finger-length fish are light, meaty, and mild with a nutty flavor—an altogether irresistible appetizer.
Pizza is only as good as its crust, and Cork’s crust deserves kudos—it’s thin, evenly browned, displaying a bit of backbone as you lift a slice. The kitchen places a little mound of salad at the center of the pizza, making it a perfect light meal, more than the sum of its parts. The shrimp, Fontina, and pesto pizza, with a mound of baby-spinach salad, would work better if the shrimp, which are plump and fresh, were chopped and distributed evenly instead of being placed whole and at wide intervals. They look nice, like a designer clock face, but four out of five bites are shrimpless.
There is, however, no faulting the shredded-duck-breast pizza with caramelized onions and goat cheese, which we gobble up so fast there is hardly time to cogitate on its merits. But for the record, the lushness of the duck and sweetness of the onions are wonderfully offset by the tang of the goat cheese and the clutch of faintly bitter frisée salad with citrus vinaigrette.
Cork has struggled since its inception to execute consistently. Executive chef Sae An, who is only 26, has tightened the reins since taking over last year, but when I visited there were still rough spots, more often on the entrée side of the menu. Prosciutto-wrapped monkfish is overly salty on the outside and dry on the inside; seared Atlantic salmon comes out slightly dry, and the potato-scallion pancake on which it is served is browned to within shouting distance of burned. (Chef An has since taken these off the menu.)
The short dessert list has one miss and one home run. The miss is an apple tart, with the apple shreds underbaked and over-cinnamoned. The chocolate pot de crème, served warm in an espresso cup with a topping of steamed milk froth and a side dish of caramel ice cream, hits the perfect balance of cocoa bite and comforting sweetness.
Reviewed in: September 2006