It’s been an uneven couple of years for Chef Mike Stollenwerk. The quick ascent of Little Fish, followed by a reasonably well-received second act in Fish, kicked off one of the most promising careers in the city. We hadn’t really seen a chef with this level of fishy mastery since Alison Barshak at Striped Bass all those years ago.
But then something happened—maybe he tried to expand too quickly (Fathom and Fish’s Locust Street location come to mind); perhaps it was the attachment of his name, albeit briefly, to the perplexing Brick American Eatery (he did the first menu but left before the restaurant ever opened). Whatever the reason, Stollenwerk had by then gone from being a chef on the rise to something very different.
Now he is helming the kitchen at Branzino, and once again, he’s delivering on the promise of his talent. Branzino is the Rittenhouse stalwart that, if reliable, hadn’t been terribly exciting in some time. Stollenwerk arrived there a couple months ago, and the change is nothing short of astounding: The menu now reads like his own (minus desserts, which will be transitioned shortly), with line after line boasting dishes you really want to eat. And the flavors of the platings are excellent.
Salmon belly crudo arrived marching across a brick of pink Himalayan salt and glistening a similar color. Drizzled with lemon oil and brightened up with radish and cucumber, it was a deceptively simple preparation, resonant and restrained all at once. Charred octopus embodied all the tender meatiness you’d hope for, and without the gnawing chew it often falls victim to. Knobs of morcilla and coins of fried fingerlings lent it a lovely Spanish air without ever feeling heavy-handed.
Spaghettini, crafted in-house and boasting a textbook rough texture and square edges, would have been better if too much lemon juice hadn’t obscured the anchovies and hot pepper, which should have been the real focus. A minor recalibration, however, and this has the potential to be one of Rittenhouse’s top pastas.
Speck-wrapped Alaskan halibut was just barely overcooked, but that was a minor hiccup: A quick drag of that otherwise excellent fish through the almond gazpacho and a singing brown butter moistened everything right up. And, as Stollenwerk did with a particularly memorable serrano-wrapped cod back at Fish a few years ago, accompanying roasted grapes and cauliflower gave it a sweetness and depth that jibed perfectly with the ham. He also topped it with what he described as dried milk powder solids, an ingenious, delicious preparation that involves straining the fat out of brown-butter solids and then re-cooking them in butter before mixing them with roasted marcona almonds. It’s like butter on steroids: An A-Rod of lactic goodness.
This new regime is lavishing just as much care on the menu’s meats, too. Roasted lamb belly managed to be both forcefully rich and well-moderated by a zippy cippolini agrodolce. The majority of the food at this BYOB may be white- or rosé-appropriate, but the lamb is justification for bringing along an emergency bottle of red, just in case. (There are also grilled meats and marinated mushrooms on offer that call out for reds as well.)
There is a lot of work planned for this restaurant, including a seriously expanded kitchen in the basement and a setup that will allow for a more streamlined flow down there, especially considering this new menu. (In-house charcuterie is also in the offing.)
The transition hasn’t been seamless, of course. Branzino has been around for a long time, and there are plenty of regulars who must be chafing at the changes. But I have a feeling that once word gets out about how this re-energized restaurant is transitioning into a new phase of its life, any pushback from the regulars will be minimal. Good food, after all, tends to rise above that sort of thing. And Stollenwerk, even just a few months into his tenure here, is producing food as rewarding and exciting as he has in a long time. It’s great to have him back.
261 S. 17th St. 215.790.0103. branzinophilly.com
Cuisine type: Fish-focused and inspired by Northern Italy.
Hours: Lunch, 11:30am-3pm; Dinner: Mon.-Thurs., 5-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 5-11pm; Sun., 5-9pm.
Price range: $9-$32.
Atmosphere: Attractive, even if the decor remains a bit heavy.
Food: Smartly conceived and well-executed; great changes.
Service: Friendly, familiar and professional.