One night after dinner service at Little Fish, chef Mike Stollenwerk’s shoebox-size BYOB in Bella Vista, a recently cooked baby octopus was accidentally stored pressed between two hotel pans. In the morning, Stollenwerk retrieved the cephalopod to find that as it chilled, the natural gelatin caused it to mold into a shape that mirrored the pans. “What if I press it into a cylinder?” wondered the chef. “I could slice it into thin rounds and serve it carpaccio-style.” And with that happy accident, one of Stollenwerk’s most original dishes was born. It proved so popular that he took the dish, octopus carpaccio with dried olives and clementines, with him to his second restaurant, Fish, now open in the former Astral Plane space in Center City.
[sidebar]It’s just the kind of inventive cooking his fans have come to expect. Stollenwerk doesn’t stray into the realm of molecular gastronomy. He doesn’t rely on chemical food glues or specialty equipment. His talent lies at the nexus of his innovation and his respect for tradition and ingredients.
Stollenwerk was already making a name for himself at Little Fish, which he took over from the previous owner in early 2007, when Bon Appétit magazine named his diminutive dining room the third best place to eat seafood in the country. As it was, the chef was regularly turning away diners — the space only has 22 seats — and planning a second restaurant, but after the magazine’s list was published in December of 2008, more room became a necessity. Stollenwerk wanted not only more seats and a liquor license, but also a more comfortable atmosphere — the quarters at Little Fish are some of the tightest in town.
At Fish, that vision has emerged in a spacious dining room with whitewashed walls, dark wood floors and comfy leather chairs. It’s fancier than Little Fish, but still casual enough to be thought of as a neighborhood place. And the focus remains squarely on the food. Oysters, for example, are served with a different mignonette depending on their place of origin. Briny East Coasters are paired with a well-made version of the traditional vinegar, pepper and shallot sauce; West Coast specimens get a bath of tamari, lime and minced cucumber, a perfect complement to the oysters’ melon notes. Stollenwerk also employs a dedicated oyster shucker who does a meticulous job of retaining the liquor and keeping the bivalves free from shell. Most raw preparations, like the fluke ceviche served on a brick of Himalayan salt with flakes of shaved cashew, are just as good as those oysters, but a recent hiramasa, cured only enough to deprive the fish of its silky raw texture, fell short.