In Philadelphia, why must diners troll for a really good seafood meal?

Pastry chef Monica Glass (top) crafts a dessert at Fish. Above: Salmon belly crudo.
Pastry chef Monica Glass (top) crafts a dessert at Fish. Above: Salmon belly crudo.
Posted: February 23, 2012

OUR CITY sits only about 60 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, even closer to the Delaware Bay, and our river port is one of the busiest on the East Coast. While you wouldn't exactly call Philadelphia "maritime" (as one might call Baltimore), the sea certainly isn't a foreign concept.

Yet, when it comes to dining, seafood is so often a struggle in this city. Why aren't there more, and better, seafood places here in Philadelphia, I often wonder? Many others seem to feel the same way, if I judge by how often I'm asked to recommend "a really good seafood place." Beyond Oyster House on Sansom Street, which I rank among my favorite happy hour spots in the city, I'm often left scratching my head.

Even perpetual hit maker Stephen Starr has struggled with the seafood concept, having shuttered the gone-but-not-forgotten Striped Bass in 2008, and now with his new Route 6 on North Broad, which I sadly found to be hit or miss. The cavernous interior, while more attractive and better designed, still reminds me of one of those enormous seafood joints at the Jersey shore that I've been acquainted with pretty much my whole life. While I don't mind this sort of dining when I'm with multiple generations of my sunburned family on vacation, it's not exactly what I'm looking for on a quiet Thursday night in the city.

During my visits to Route 6, I was pleased with my bluefish ("grilled over split cherry & white oak") and wood-oven-roasted scallops, but totally underwhelmed by the Maine lobster roll - which had better be very good if you're going to put it on a menu, by the way. And I was nearly scandalized by the Fairmount sampler from the raw bar: eight oysters, four littlenecks, 10 shrimp, crab cocktail and a half lobster . . . for $42. Yikes!

Honestly, I might not have minded the price, but the selection hardly transcended mediocrity.

After that desultory raw bar experience, I thought a lot about how tricky the proposition of a seafood restaurant must be. On its face, seafood should be simple. Buy great fish and shellfish fresh off the boat, and don't screw it up in the kitchen. But what happens, then, as the seasonal offerings wax and wane - like, say, in February when I visited?

Here's the question that kept popping up for me: Is the ultimate success of a seafood restaurant in the sourcing of the fish and shellfish? Or is it the cooking?

Making fish 'werk

In the wake of so much "farm-to-table" (and its cousin, "sea-to-table") hyperbole in recent years, some of the highest-profile chefs are asking the same question. In the first issue of the uber-trendy food quarterly Lucky Peach (published by oh-so-hip Momofuku chef David Chang and McSweeney's), there is a rambling conversation between Chang, Anthony Bourdain and pioneering WD-50 chef Wylie Dufresne in which they debate what Dufresne calls "ingredient-driven" cuisine.

He insists that good cooking must be more than just "shopping," which is how he characterizes a lot of farm-to-table cuisine. All three laud a certain famed sushi chef in Tokyo - not because of his amazing fresh fish but because he cooks, in their opinion, "the best rice in the world."

My mind was, um, swimming, with all of this Big Thinking as I visited the newly relocated Fish at 13th and Locust, on the ground floor of the boutique Independent Hotel.

Not too long ago, at its old location on Lombard, Fish looked like part of a growing mini-empire by owner Michael Stollenwerk, who also had Little Fish in Bella Vista and Fathom in Fishtown. But then, in the span of several months, he divested himself of both places to focus only on Fish, which is now more than double the size of the old space, with 90 seats.

"I found myself running around too much," Stollenwerk told me. "I was just running around fixing stuff. I kinda wanted to get back in the kitchen." To me, that is an incredibly admirable impulse, and it shows in the new Fish, which may just be my favorite new restaurant in the city.

I think what sets Fish apart is everything at the restaurant that isn't seafood. The space is dark and sexy, and makes you want to linger at the bar for hours, snacking on things like puffed skate chips, then moving on to raw bar, then perhaps dining. Theo Webb's drinks program is excellent, with surprising cocktails, wines you don't find everywhere (an affordable Blanquette de Limoux sparkler anyone?), and "large-format" 750 ml beers from Italy and Lithuania, or dry cider from Olympia, Wash., sharing menu billing and often pairing just as well as the wine.

Also, Stollenwerk's hiring of Monica Glass as his pastry chef might be genius. I'm not generally a dessert person, but I'm still dreaming of her bombolini trio, basically little doughnuts filled with pistachio, dulce de leche and grapefruit rosemary.

Both the drinks and desserts show there's a real inspiration behind Fish, that Stollenwerk realizes a seafood restaurant needs to strive for something more.

Stollenwerk's raw bar goes well beyond oysters and shrimp, with some of the most delicious crudo - essentially an Italian version of sushi - I've tasted, including his salmon belly and a recent special in which Stollenwerk fused together two different tunas, then cured and smoked it to create an uncanny, baconlike experience.

His spicy Blue Bay mussels may be a farm-to-table name-check, but with his sumptuous concoction of curry, coconut and lemongrass, who cares? Those mussels, along with his delicate skate wing, with a kiss of truffle and a rich but bright Parmesan broth, are simply two of the best seafood dishes in the city.

"Seafood is hard to do," Stollenwerk said. "You cook it one minute too long, and it's garbage. Every fish is different, too. Some stuff should be medium, some should be raw. Fish is such a touchy thing to cook."

When Stollenwerk told me this, I immediately smiled. At Fish, cooking definitely trumps shopping.


Jason Wilson has twice won an award for Best Newspaper Food Column from the Association of Food Journalists. He is the author of "Boozehound" and editor of "The Smart Set," an online arts and culture journal at Drexel University. Follow him at twitter.com/boozecolumnist or go to jasonwilson.com.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|