Mike Stollenwerk’s grammatically awkward restaurant is bigger and better than the original.
Gently, the bartender squeezed an eyedropper. Three times, three tears of Angostura bitters stained the frothy white head of my dinner guest’s lip-puckering pisco sour. To my right, just beyond the bank of windows, a couple huddled under a twisted tree twirled in lights. To my left, in a compact open kitchen, four chefs worked a line in radio silence, one of the best-tuned culinary ballets I’ve seen. And in front of me sat a big fat drink comprised of three of my favorite things: vodka, sake and Prosecco.
I sipped the glacial tonic, refreshing as water from an ancient Japanese spring, and began to systematically ravage half a dozen raw oysters, wondering, could I possibility be more content?
The answer would be no, and believe me, nobody was more surprised than me at how hard I fell for fish, the upriver, lowercase spawn of chef Mike Stollenwerk, sequel to his maddeningly popular South Philly boîte Little Fish. Not that I thought the food wouldn’t be great; Stollenwerk has already proven to be one of the most imaginative seafood dudes in the city. But I’m a sucker for Little Fish, an underdog with its bathroom in dry storage and 22 tables arranged like Tetris blocks.
Situated up on Lombard, where Graduate Hospital starts looking more General Hospital , fish is definitely not an underdog. But reposed in the restaurant’s intimate lounge, I saw the spirit of its Little brother alive and well.
Fish is much bigger than Little Fish, but only in the sense that Luxembourg is much bigger than Andorra. Here, in the old Astral Plane, Stollenwerk seats 38 in an elevated dining room that, in pictures, looks cool and smooth as vanilla panna cotta. Personally I can’t confirm; after those oysters arrived at the nine-stool bar, I never ventured further.
Like animals to the ark, they came two by two: Tomahawks and Island Creeks from Massachusetts, Shibumis from Washington State, shucked inches from my stool and presented in ice-filled stainless-steel troughs custom fabricated at a Chinatown atelier. They arrived already dressed: cracked-pepper- flecked Banyuls mignonette for the East Coasts and a jewel-cut cucumber-lemon refresher that picked up notes of melon and wild greens in the Westies.
The extra square footage at fish means Stollenwerk can offer up to eight different oysters per night; at Little Fish, there’s only enough space in the fridge for one type at a time. It also means you might have an easier time snagging a spot at the $28 five-course Sunday supper starting the end of this month.
Should you take advantage of that deal, hope for the carpaccio of Spanish octopus topped with blood-orange segments, peppery young arugula and bits of dehydrated black olives. Bound by a natural gelatin that forms as the simmered tentacles cool, the violet-trimmed ivory coins are shaved paper-thin on a meat slicer, another toy Stollenwerk never had room for at Little Fish. The texture was tender as fresh pasta, which, incidentally, arrived just after the octopus. Cavatelli, to be specific, little semolina slippers tossed with rich lobster Bolognese and crowned with a dollop of house-made ricotta.
With 24 hours notice you can get chicken or beef, but even the most die-hard cowboy will appreciate Stollenwerk’s style of matching hearty specimens with bold flavors. Take the meaty mahi-mahi, posed unexpectedly over a smashing Red Bliss potato salad mined with explosives of citrusy coriander. Or the Mediterranean cruise souvenirs—cracked Picholine olives, silvery anchovies, Spanish gigante beans big as the buttons on a peacoat—that electrified a smart, modern play on vitello tonnato involving thin-pounded veal wrapped (via meat glue) around bigeye tuna loin that was the prettiest shade of lilac.
Desserts, however, are not fish’s forte. Stollenwerk’s mother makes them, and I hate to bust on mama, but the vanilla ice cream swirled with ribbons of balsamic did no favors for the Jewish apple bundt cake, and the semifrozen lemon mousse with ricotta, pistachios and honey was way too bitter. I remember enjoying Mrs. S.’s straightforward desserts at Little Fish, but at fish, it feels like she’s trying way too hard.
Fortunately, the restaurant doesn’t come across that way overall—least of all in the effortlessly great service at the bar. In fish, Stollenwerk has a sequel that does the original proud. ■
PW's Taste of Philly 2014