New Blood: Little Fish Reviewed
This is what you have to ask yourself before coming to Little Fish: Is paying $15 for a single bite worth it?
Okay, it’s actually two bites—two bits of lobster tail meat, perfectly poached, buttery and soft, with shiso and tiny, adorable slices of lime, set on rounds of feuille de brick pastry dough as thin and light as paper. But if you’re there with someone at Little Fish, at one of the (very) few tables available on any night, and not just by yourself, you’re only going to get one of them. One perfect bite. Fifteen bucks.
So are you willing? Because I am. Even if everything else there was a waste of time (which it isn’t), and even if I had a terrible time there (which I didn’t), I would still tell you to go just for this. Because in this one dish—this one bite—is everything that’s wonderful about this nearly indestructible restaurant in its newest incarnation.
Many chefs have rotated through Little Fish over the last decade. But what matters today is who’s there right now. Alex Yoon is young. Just 26. He interned at Le Bec Fin, worked the line at Serpico, cooked through Vail, San Francisco, France, and then returned to Philly late last year to take over ownership of Little Fish, with its tiny footprint (22 seats), its ever-changing menu, and its kitchen so open, you feel like you’re practically eating in it.
There’s the lobster, of course. Little slips of madai over avocados and bell pepper, appropriate on a hot night. One evening, there’s cobia, all white and fatty, with green curry and chunks of sweet roasted squash. On another, crisp-skinned salmon still crackling from the pan, or sea bass in a puddle of bright and bitter salsa verde that’s a perfect match for the oily meat. I eat it and understand the focus of the kitchen, its concern with flavor above all else.
Little Fish isn’t perfect. It’s basic and small, crowded, loud. The dishes are blunted sometimes by their very simplicity. But there’s no artifice here. No gimmicks. The food that Yoon is sending out is smart, wearing its up-jumped classicism like a vintage suit. I like the dishes that miss the mark almost as much as the ones that hit, because Yoon aims high. I like that sense of arrogance in small kitchens, that sense of Let me show you what I can do. It’s still a work in progress. Yoon says so himself. He’s added producers, and altered the pacing of the menu to allow a third course of appetizers. And even though Little Fish will always be a neighborhood place (so very Philly, with its BYO roots and scrappy soul), he has worked to make it finer, more polished. More luxurious.
Like that lobster: expensive, but absolutely worth it.
Three Stars: Come from anywhere in the region
0 stars: stay away
★: come if you have no other options
★★: come if you’re in the neighborhood
★★★: come from anywhere in the region
★★★★: come from anywhere in the country