Little Fish: Big Flavor

Chef Mike Stollenwerk adds to his small empire.

By Brian Freedman
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Mar. 30, 2011

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Suddenly sea more: Golden spot tilefish luxuriates in a pool of tomato consumme.

Photo by Ryan Strand

Despite each new accolade he receives, Chef Mike Stollenwerk has been remarkably quiet in his rise to the upper echelons of Philadelphia’s food scene. Sure, his name is dropped in the press and on blogs with relative regularity. And yes, he’s been every bit as busy as other local bold-faced food names: special menus and dinners locally; cooking at the James Beard House; opening Fathom in the full glare of expectation and coverage. But it seems the respectable little empire he’s built has been constructed more on solid foundation, on consistency and on a great team than anything else. And that has served him well.

The re-opening of Little Fish in the old Salt & Pepper space at Sixth and Fitzwater is both another coup for a neighborhood that’s become a serious dining destination in its own right—Bistrot La Minette, Adsum and Cochon are all walking-distance from Little Fish’s new digs—as well as a clever relocation for a once-beloved BYOB. Shoehorning his growing reputation into this diminutive space lends the enterprise a sense of poetry, not unlike superstar Gabrielle Hamilton still cooking from her closet-sized kitchen at New York’s Prune.

Of course, with multiple projects in the air, Stollenwerk can’t be all places at once, or even as often as he’d perhaps like to be. But with Executive Chef Chad Jenkins helming the kitchen here, and Jonathan Petruce pulling sous-duty, he has a reliable, talented team to keep standards high.

And they are, almost shockingly so. Malpeque oysters, for example, are sparked to life by sherry vinegar and shallots: Fairly standard, and executed well. But the real stunners are the Miradas—ripple-shelled oysters from Washington state whose own whiff of melon was amplified by an ingenious garnish of minced cucumber, lime and tamari. These are as fresh and refreshing as oysters get: Mollusks as mouthwash.

Those cukes are an indication of this kitchen’s swerve with textures. The rice noodles tangle up in a densely concentrated, almost woodsy hot-and-sour broth and are joined by carrots and daikon that has been shaved to almost exactly the same width. Beneath it all, a thumb-sized minaret of butter-poached king crab leg, brilliantly pink and sweet.

Scallops, seared to an umber-toned brown and still silky at their centers, are topped with bacon marmalade and accompanied by a sneaky-sweet potato-apple gratin. For this dish alone it’s worth dropping the money on a nice rose Champagne or, if you’re feeling flush, a white Burgundy.

Golden spot tilefish, meaty and moist and luxuriating in a shallow pool of tomato consomme, mines a smokier depth with andouille and roasted poblano and red bell peppers. My only wish is that they’d offer little to-go bags of the crisp-skinned rock shrimp and grits cake that accompany the fish.

The one problem with enhancing so many fish dishes with pork products is that the bar can be set perhaps too high. Sturgeon, a fleshy fish that’s a natural partner for pig, is brilliant with its scattering of cracklins, but the base of whole and disintegrating gigande beans and oddly-underwhelming pork belly left me wondering what had happened to this otherwise well-conceived take on cassoulet. The dish is good, but when you read about cracklins and belly on the menu, you expect more. (By the time this review runs, the dish will have been replaced with a salmon and pork-belly ravioli, which sounds more than promising.)

But that was really the only perplexing part of the new Little Fish. Service is hyper-competent and professional; the music—full of appropriately idiosyncratic iPod diversions—fills the space without interrupting conversation; and the desserts are great. Rum cake with salted coffee caramel and a crown of banana-cashew ice cream extinguished the last vestiges of heat from the soup’s spicy broth, and chocolate mousse with thick chestnut cookies and ice cream, itself as savory as too many are saccharine-sweet, works well with the dregs of whatever red you have left.

Really, it’s all very much still a product of Stollenwerk’s philosophy, and as tightly focused as it was back in its original incarnation. The difference now is that there’s a tiny bit more space and air, meaning you won’t go home smelling like the oil from his saute pans, and eventually, I expect, it’ll be a bit harder to snag a weekend reservation. But it’s worth the effort of calling early. Like the chef himself and the team he has surrounding him, Little Fish is as dedicated as it’s ever been. As rewarding, too.

746 S. Sixth St.

Cuisine type: Seafood-centric.

Hours: Mon.-Sat., 5:30-10pm; Sun: Five-course prix fixe, two seatings at 6pm and 8pm.

Price range: $2-$30.

Atmosphere: Intimate, comfortable, and focused on the food: An old-school BYOB.

Food: A joyous homage to the sea.

Service: Among the most professional in the neighborhood.

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