Granted, expectations might be a tad jumbo-sized ever since this shrimp was tapped in December by Bon Appetit as the third-best "new style" seafood restaurant in the country. (What? No Le Bernardin or Michael Mina place on that list?) It's the kind of overstatement that explains why I loathe the false rankings of national mag "Best of" lists. And yet, set against the Philadelphia scene, where the demise of Striped Bass left a sudden dearth of restaurants focusing exclusively on seafood, Little Fish really does make a notable splash.
It isn't perfect by a long shot, and entree prices that bob in the high $20s are a bit steep given the bare-bones setting. But Little Fish has continued to be a worthy draw, and even stepped up its game a bit since Mike Stollenwerk bought it two years ago from chef-owner John Tiplitz, whose son, Ian Moroney, also made his name there before launching his own Pumpkin.
Stollenwerk, 32, an Ocean City, N.J., native who owned Cafe Loren in Avalon for five years before heading to Philly (Davio's, Latest Dish, Avenue B), builds his success on great ingredients. He even fetches much of the seafood himself on early-morning pilgrimages every Thursday to his favorite fishmonger in Manhattan. And there is a simplicity to the best dishes here, plus a knowing tweak or smart seasonal pairing, that allows this bounty to really shine.
Beautifully seared New Bedford dayboat skate is rightfully one of this kitchen's signature dishes, fanned over truffled spaetzle in creamy parmesan broth beneath a buttery spoonful of melted leeks. The sweet flakes of peekytoe crab steeped in warm tarragon butter are mounded into a pillar with shaved fennel over rounds of roasted beets - a classic pairing rethought into a lusciously unbound crab cake. Even something as straightforward as salty Shemogue oysters on the half shell, expertly shucked with a splash of sherry vinegar mignonette, are bracingly good.
There's a reason great seafood restaurants are a rarity: The fleeting delicacy of such expensive ingredients is both a virtue and a curse. Nail it just right, and it's poetry with fins. But one small slip of technique or seasoning can spoil even the best fillet. And there were instances when this kitchen let a heavy hand get in the way.
Too much raw sea salt, for example, slightly dimmed two different promising scallop appetizers. The scallops themselves were pristine and perfectly medium rare. I even loved the inventive pairings - richly creamed cauliflower gratin with emulsified raisin sauce one night; gingery pureed carrots with pistachios the next. But a liberal finish of sprinkled salt left the big sweet rounds with a brackish crackle.
Similarly, a splendid slice of seared suzuki (Japanese black bass) over delicate brussels sprout leaves was overwhelmed by the pungent salty smoke of Benton's bacon (everyone's favorite new ingredient) overzealously cut into too-large chunks. Another black bass dish, served with oyster mushrooms over parsnip puree, was also a tad salty. But it was the lack of obvious lobsteriness in the meatlike lobster reduction that caused us to shrug "eh."
At the other end of the spectrum, it was a dull balance of seasoning - not enough garlic or chile pique, and too much sweet balsamic - that left a busy bowl of calamari and tomato ragout (a variation on Mario Batali's Sicilian Lifeguard-style calamari with pine nuts, raisins, olives, capers and Israeli couscous) tasting like an oddly bland squid porridge.
For these slight disappointments, Stollenwerk and his crew turned in just as many stellar dishes.
I've had plenty of Thai-styled mussels before, for example, but his Blue Bay beauties basked in a panang coconut-milk curry that was vivid with lemongrass and ginger. A beautiful steak of opah, seared rare and shingled over pureed white beans, matched the tunalike meatiness of the Hawaiian fish with the Provencale spark of picholine olive vinaigrette and fennel marmalade. A thick fillet of crisped mahimahi, meanwhile, posed with juicy pears and peppery watercress over sweet potato puree and a sauce of Madras curry, whose delicate yellow cream whispered exotic without overwhelming the fish.
Dishes like these remind why Little Fish often exemplifies some of the best traits of the Philly BYOB - where surprising culinary ambition is presented in the warm ambience of an unpretentious neighborhood nook, and the dining experience is all about the food and company.
Of course, at $27 or so an entree on the regular menu, there isn't much room for mistakes in such an unvarnished setting. So it's little wonder the bargain Sunday tasting menus - five courses for $28! - are booked weeks in advance.
With service, too, Little Fish is hard not to like. It's not often a server is as informed and as genuinely enthusiastic as Natalie Sweet, the much-tattooed and spunky waitress who kept the dinners happily flowing on each of my visits.
And yet, there are plenty of moments when Little Fish also shows the limitations of such a tiny bistro. Not only in the cramped table spacing, noisy din, and low-maintenance nondecor, but also in a kitchen that sometimes appears hamstrung by the lack of equipment and storage from producing a broader expression of what seafood cookery can be, other than these myriad variations of seared fish over pureed starch.
It will certainly be worth watching as Stollenwerk, one of our notable young talents, trolls for the additional venue he's planned this year to serve that vision in grander digs.
As I tried to fall asleep after my dinner at Little Fish, with Desire the cat hungrily licking at my wrists, I could only hope the new place at least includes some ventilation.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Butcher & Singer near Rittenhouse Square. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org.