Posted by Trey Popp on December 6th, 2012
Having your restaurant named in a top-ten list by a national magazine isn’t typically a cause for regret. But sometimes I’ve wondered if it might be for Mike Stollenwerk.
After Bon Appetit trumpeted his cooking at Little Fish in a December 2008 roundup of “new-style” fish houses, it seemed like the chef with the Popeye forearms was on his way to becoming the Poseidon of Philly’s pescetarian scene. The BA squib begat enthusiastic reviews from the local press (usually it works in the other direction). In 2009 he opened Fish on Lombard Street, adding about 40 seats and a liquor license to his portfolio. A year and a half later he debuted Fathom, a down-home seafood bar in (where else?) Fishtown. Soon there was chatter about two more places in the works in Brewerytown—and then the announcement that Fish was moving to a marquee address on 13th street, where it would double its capacity.
Flash forward to May of 2012. Stollenwerk had sold Little Fish, unloaded the underachieving Fathom to his partner, and there was nothing happening in Brewerytown. Then Fish itself went dark on 13th Street amidst a wave of rumors and conflicting reports.
“It wasn’t as much fun as I thought it would be,” Stollenwerk told me when I called to ask him about the dwindling of his restaurant empire. “It was more like babysitting. An ice machine’s broken here. The fridge is out there … I spent all day just driving around.”
Fish reopened a couple weeks later, masking whatever behind-the-scenes discord that had led to its sudden closure with that old restaurant-world evergreen: the “new menu concept.” Translation: small plates, more of them, and a price point that PR flacks could advertise as lower while the servers make sure that dinner cost just as much as it did before.
I went to check it out. By the time the shrunken portions began arriving—on positively gigantic plates—my expectations had fallen pretty low.
In its Lombard Street incarnation, Fish had been a terrific place for a cocktail. Bartender Theo Webb mixed Pimm’s Cups with homemade ginger ale and shook the best pisco sour in town. But now he’s out, and the enticing cocktail list on Fish’s website had vanished without a trace.
The same thing had happened on the wine front. Tim Kweeder had built a small treasure trove of offbeat whites, flexible reds that meshed with Stollenwerk’s approach to seafood, and unheralded European gems. But Stollenwerk lost him to a.kitchen. I’d spent an hour earlier that day perusing the bottles on Fish’s website. Should I nerd it up with Philippe Teulier’s pure varietal Fer Servadou from southwest France? Relive my honeymoon with some Basque country Txakolina? Or see if Copain’s Viognier was on par with their reputation for Burgundy-style pinot noirs?
None of the above.
“A lot of people had problems with the European focus,” according to Stollenwerk, “so management in the front-of-the-house mainstreamed the wine list.”
They should have put the boring new one on the website, to forestall feelings of duped betrayal. I ended up with a perfectly drinkable dry rosé, but felt a little like a kid who gets promised the Please Touch Museum but is taken to Penn’s Landing instead.
Add those disappointments to the fact that the restaurant was less than half full, that our server was lackadaisical, and the price of what looked to be a two-pound whole red snapper was $54, and it seemed like Stollenwerk had walked the bases loaded before sending the first bite of food out from the kitchen.
But then it came, a crudo of dazzling #1-plus-grade tuna on a giant pink Himalayan block, dappled lightly with chili oil and furikake. And better still, a ceviche in which halibut and mahi mahi basked in the low, fruity heat of Peruvian aji amarillo.
He struck out the side and never let up. The curried P.E.I. mussels were a master’s thesis on kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass. Fabulously tender octopus arms, their suckers crisped on a plancha, came with salty feta, brightly acidic late-season tomatoes, and a kalamata gastrique.
We ordered almost the entire menu, and no one thing resembled another even slightly. A thin-pressed, griddle-style crab cake sang with the smoky-sweet harmony of chipotle peppers. Lobster came in Bolognese disguise–a rich ragu clinging to hollow twists of cavatappi. Stollenwerk’s rightly famous (if sustainability-defying) skate wing was as good as ever, its truffled spaetzle crispier than I remembered and its parmesan broth rich but not overly so. Sweetened preserved lemons played off fettucini-cut long hots in an amped up rendition of fried calamari. Sunflower seeds lent an unexpected crackle to one of the most succulent pieces of halibut—line caught out of Yakutat, Alaska—that’s ever come my way.
There were a couple small failings along the way—one being a 48-hour shortrib that wasn’t nearly as tender as its cooking time should have made it. But who orders meat at a fish house?
There’s actually more to that question than you’d think, because Stollenwerk has long had a carnivorous approach to fish. On Lombard Street, I recall a lamb’s lettuce salad sporting chicken skin, tuna with veal ragu, and monkfish with lamb shank, among other meat-heavy mash-ups. I liked most of it, but sometimes I felt like Stollenwerk’s real genius was figuring out how to cook fish for people who don’t actually like seafood.
In my meal at Fish 2.0, the focus was more squarely on the ocean, which I liked. More importantly, the bad news on the beverage front was outweighed by good news in the kitchen: Stollenwerk was no longer driving between it and other restaurants to fix broken appliances and whatnot. He was back at the stoves, which was manifestly where he belonged.
So, a happy ending, right?
Not so fast. Because ten days after I wrote my review for this column, Stollenwerk decided to move and remake Fish again. This time 30 paces down Locust Street, in a space once more as small as the Lombard location had been, and the tapas theme was going out the window. Meanwhile, he was going to start re-extending himself by opening Rhino Bar in the old Fish 2.0 digs.
It is a blessing of this job that this is what counts for irritation. I like Stollenwerk’s cooking, and now, well, I had no choice but to go back for another round of it.
Only that’s not what I got when I went to Fish 3.0. Stollenwerk was absent from the open kitchen—perhaps cooking meatloaf and lamb ribs next door at Rhino Bar, although I didn’t check. The cooks in his place executed a more tightly drawn menu ably, though not perfectly. Sea scallops plated with bacon, chestnuts and tangy apple were uncooked in the middle. Autumn was also going on in a striped bass filet flanked by celery-root puree, oyster mushrooms, and a meaty-crispy slice of pork belly—but it was the autumn of overcast skies and muted flavors.
But an octopus appetizer was as invigorating as a shock of sunshine on a crisp, still day. Seared tentacles curled around tangles of pickled peppers and almost-crunchy blood-sausage crumbles. And perfectly cooked mahi mahi hit the mark, with caramelized onions and a juicy apple vinaigrette playing sweet counterpoint to a rich and earthy peanut sauce.
Throw in a chocolate torte with mascarpone ice cream and a blessedly restrained cherry sauce, and you’ve got a solid meal, if not a stellar one. But it’s a dinner punctuated by question marks. Has the dream of a revived wine list officially died? That’s how the menu reads—and now the website too. Do Manhattans typically come garnished? Mine was bare. Will a seat at the intimate chef’s counter get you any closer to Stollenwerk himself?
Maybe. Maybe not. Or maybe the current answers are beside the point, and three weeks from now we’ll be asking the same questions about Fish 4.0.
Photo by Josh Hahn
Fish [Official Site]
24 N. Lansdowne Ave., Lansdowne, PA 19050