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fish.
1708 Lombard Street
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
(215) 545-9600
fishphilly.com

With three diminutive but exceedingly popular eateries in his stable, Mike Stollenwerk seems destined to be crowned king of Philadelphia’s casual seafood scene. The first to debut was Little Fish (746 South Sixth Street), a tiny, cramped (22-seat) BYOB that Bon Appétit magazine hailed as the third best seafood restaurant in the United States in 2009. Mr. Stollenwerk also recently opened Fathom (200 East Girard Avenue), a super-laid back sea-centric gastropub located, appropriately enough, in the City’s Fishtown section.

Exterior SignBut the establishment that is generating the most excitement of late is the middle sibling, fish., 1708 Lombard Street, which opened its doors in October 2009 and is domiciled in the two-room townhouse that was home to the long-running Astral Plane. When the location became available, Mr. Stollenwerk snapped it up immediately, as it is larger than Little Fish (although it still only seats about 45 patrons), has infinitely more space for refrigerated storage, and comes replete with a liquor license.

. . .And that liquor license is surely put to good use…You cross the threshold and plop yourself down at the tiny bar (9-stools). Here you get a bird’s-eye view of the goings on in the bustling open kitchen and may assuage your thirst with one of the exotic libations, boutique brews, or a glass of vino from the interesting wine list. Particularly recommended is the Von Heddesdorf Riesling, a dry white wine from Germany’s Mosel region.

Should you be a dedicated bivalve fan, this is also the perfect spot to put a dent in the eight varieties of raw oysters that fish. makes available nightly. Briny East Coasters are accompanied by a traditional mignonette of vinegar, pepper, and shallot sauce, while representatives from the West are bathed in a splash of lemon and minced cucumber.

When it finally comes time to tear yourself away and settle in at table, you take two steps up into a rather austerely embellished dining area that is somewhat softened by crimson banquettes, dark polished wooden tables, crisp white cloth napkins, and the shimmering glow of votive candles.

Just one caveat, lest the menu take you by surprise… As the name implies, this is a restaurant dedicated to piscatorial and other pleasures of the sea. The nightly-changing bill of fare contains but one (1) non-seafood appetizer; additionally, should you desire other than a thalassic treasure as your main course – chicken or beef, for instance – you must make your request known 24 hours in advance.

That being said, however, I have always been of the opinion that anyone who orders beef in a seafood restaurant has a death wish, as these establishments have a tendency to treat red meat as beneath contempt – and prepare it accordingly (obversely, interestingly enough, most steakhouses generally handle various incarnations of finny fare with reasonable competence). So consider yourself forewarned. fish. is unabashedly and unapologetically a sea-centric establishment… Confirmed carnivores would do well to seek their gastronomic jollies elsewhere.

Appetizer-wise, if raw oysters are not your thing, I would highly recommend the Prince Edward Island mussels. Plump, succulent, and at the very peak of good health, they arrive swimming in an incomparable Panang curry broth, a mild curry imbued with coconut milk and tincture of lemongrass.

Octopus is another favorite starter. It is usually presented “carpaccio” style, artfully arranged wafer-thin shavings with a variety of accoutrements. On one occasion the tender slivers may be accompanied by sweet-tart grapefruit sections, micro greens, and splash of olive oil; on another, feta cheese, watermelon, black olives, pickled shallots, and baby arugula.

PanzanellaThe one non-seafood appetizer is also worth seeking out. This is the panzanella, an irresistible Italian bread salad. Crunchy morsels are presented in concert with a variety of heirloom tomato chunks, Fior di Latte (an Italian mozzarella-style cheese made from cow’s milk rather than water buffalo milk), Thai basil, and fried capers. All constituents are commingled with a bed of pristinely fresh greenery and are imbued with splashes of vinegar & olive oil and touch of seasonings.

Mr. Stollenwerk sets forth a select group of entrées… and I do mean “select.” The menu lists five (5) piscatorial possibilities. These vary, of course, depending upon, as noted on the printed bill of fare, “the availability of fresh, sustainable seafood.”

Oxymoronically, however, while fish. is sea-centric to the core, the chef has the rather odd habit of incorporating various meats into his recipes. During a recent visit, for example, pork belly figured prominently in several presentations. Previous offerings have seen bacon cozying up to king salmon and lamb breast paired with Spanish mackerel. And this is just the kind of innovative ingredient integration that his many fans have come to expect. In point of fact, one restaurant critic even went so far as to tell potential diners to stick with dishes that sound a bit quirky.

But such an idiosyncratic approach to cuisine has its liabilities as well as its assets. And, upon occasion, Mr. Stollenwerk’s creative cookery becomes a bit too creative for its own good. Take the skate wing, for example. This is the chef’s most popular main course and one of the few items that utilizes, other than the fish itself, only three additional ingredients. It is also indicative of how a beautifully conceived dish can be sabotaged by too much of a good thing.

Skate WingThe skate is pan seared to a crisp golden brown and set on a seabed of truffle infused spaetzle, which is also available as a side and surely worth the added expenditure. So far, so good… But then things begin to go awry. An utterly exquisite Parmesan broth is poured over the fish… Unfortunately, it promptly turns that crispy golden crust to golden mush. The broth is also decidedly creamy; and since the firm white flesh of the skate is slightly on the sweet side (not unlike that of a scallop), these two elements combine to execute a double whammy. And just when you begin begging for a contrasting gastronomic amelioration, the tiara of rich, velvety melted leeks kicks in and, after several bites, delivers the coup de grâce to your already defeated palate.

Golden TilefishThe natural attributes of the golden tilefish, my wife’s choice of the evening, were completely obscured by a needlessly complex concoction of golden peach purée, pistachios, pickled shallots & mustard seed, diced jicama, and a slab of pork belly. Any natural flavor emanating from the fish itself was purely coincidental.

Several other offerings appeared to be equally convoluted. The striped bass was teamed up with saffron potatoes, oven-dried tomatoes, Thumbelina carrots, mussels, Carolina shrimp, and rouille, a spicy, rust-colored sauce comprised of hot chilies, garlic, breadcrumbs, and olive oil. Meanwhile, the halibut was overrun by the likes of zucchini, Parisian gnocchi, soft scrambled egg, sesame, and carrot emulsion.

PanacottaI have always been of the opinion that matters piscatorial are best served by those sauces and other accoutrements that intrude the least. When it comes to finny fare, constituents playing supporting roles should gently caress rather than smother the objects of their affection.

Many chefs have attempted the highly stylized, avant-garde ingredient infusions one finds at fish. and Little Fish – usually at their peril – precious few have succeeded. Mr. Stollenwerk is obviously extremely talented, and his culinary creations are often inspiring… but sometimes more is less… and less is more.

June 2011
The Artful Diner

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