Fia Berisha talks about breathing the pure air of a fresh start when explaining why she named her new place Aether.
She might be the first to relate this slice of once-gritty Frankford Avenue to that rarefied zone of frictionless atmosphere that fills the heavens above the clouds. The slender, sleek, and deceptively deep new seafood restaurant-wine bar she recently opened at the corner of East Berks occupies the northernmost reaches of the hipster heaven known as Fishtown. It sits just south of where the Frankford rocket busts through the gentrifying ozone into the even hipper space of the Kensington cosmos.
The astro-geography matters only as a point of reference in charting the steady northern trajectory of ambitious restaurant prospecting across one of Philly’s fastest-evolving neighborhoods. A $28 lobster roll here would have been a laughable folly of ambition overreach 10 years ago. Today, I know more than a few early Fishtown gentrifiers who still view Aether’s high-$20s entrées as lofty.
I’ve got some culinary quibbles with Aether’s lobster roll: too small, with too much green tobiko, and not enough firmness on the lightly cooked meat. But the mere notion of such luxuries is no longer out of place on an avenue where upscale spots like Suraya and Wm. Mulherin’s Sons are grilling even pricier dry-aged chops, whole fish, and Caledonian head-on prawns for sold-out crowds. Might as well face it — with a raw-bar tower before you and fizzy glass of Pét-Nat in hand — Fishtown’s scrappy gastropub pioneer days are behind it.
That lobster roll was one of the few disappointments on an appealing menu with plenty of fun grazing options that largely made me happy as a razor clam splashed in smoked buttermilk and dill. (Definitely do not miss that raw-bar highlight.)
It was that bristling urban energy paired with an intimate neighborhood vibe that first attracted Berisha to Fishtown to begin with, a magnetism strong enough to detour her frequently on a commute between the King of Prussia Mall and Princeton, where she manages branches of Mistral and Elements for chef Scott Anderson and his partner, Stephen Distler, a former investment banker.
She still manages those restaurants, a workload familiar to someone who worked a deli job regularly after school from the time she was 11. But Berisha, now 33, has found a home she loves in the rowhouse apartment above the former thrift store she’s converted into Aether, a chain of rooms clad in Nordic-style wood with granite, gray tones, leather chairs, and bubble-shaped amber lights fashioned from favorite old wine bottles.
“There’s actually people my age here,” she said of Fishtown. “I can have a life, build a restaurant, and be happy working 90 hours a week.”
Her bar leans toward indie natural wines from Austria, Portugal, and Slovenia, as well as Basque whimsies like an effervescent pink Txakoli. A citrus-forward cocktail list comes with frequent notes of smoky mescal, house infusions, and absinthe. There are creative mocktails, too — though our server’s innocent but indiscreet conversation with one guest inadvertently obliged her to announce her pregnancy to the table.
There’s a sophisticated sheen of fancy here that seems still like a novelty this far north on Frankford Avenue. And it helps to have benefactors like Anderson and “Papa Steve,” who not only helped contribute a major investment, but drew on their deep stable of chef talent in Chris Boyce, 36, a veteran of both Mistral and Elements.
The globe-hopping influence of those kitchens is clearly evident in the international accents to this seafood menu, from the cuminy chorizo spice of house-made shrimp sausage to the various curries (Thai and Indian) that inform sauces, plus nods to Louisiana and the Middle East.
The impact of this slightly retro fusion approach delivers less of a “wow” in the context of one of the city’s most progressive dining neighborhoods than it does in a college town or the chain-ruled landscape of a mall, where this company’s restaurants have reliably brought refreshing three-bell blasts of fresh air. Considering that history, Aether might be viewed as a bit of a mild letdown. But if one comes to Aether on its own terms without such lofty expectations, it has plenty of appeal as a next-gen neighborhood restaurant trimmed with a dose of extra ambition and tony style.
A good raw bar is always an asset. And Aether’s offerings are worthy, with clean, cold, and well-shucked oysters pooling with briny liquor (try the complex Kusshis and Purple Mountains from the West Coast) and fleshy littlenecks from New Jersey. I loved the citrus whiff of grated lime zests that dusted the sweet raw scallops sliced down into their shells edged with a soy ring of tangy ponzu.
There are some familiar items on this menu that are perfectly good because they’re made with quality ingredients, even if they don’t exactly break new ground. Like the hamachi sashimi over cucumbers marinated in galangal oil and spicy Korean vinegar — two garnishes that could have been dialed-up one notch.
The shrimp po-boy is all wrong (except for the waffle fries) with a bulky roll that overshadowed the crustaceans and a gratuitously overspiced aioli. The plancha-seared octopus, whose thick arms looped like a bike lock around chorizo and crispy fingerlings, would have been fantastic if they were more tender. The thickly diced tuna tartare was tossed with avocado, cucumbers, and edamame beans in a way that reminded me a bit too much of a mundane poke lunch.
Not ho-hum? The caviar-like tin of orange trout roe layered over crème fraîche seasoned with yuzu kosho (a Japanese chili-citrus paste). This indulgent starter (currently off-menu, but available by request) embodied the whimsical spirit of raw-bar luxury, though at $18, a more affordable caviar stand-in. With house-crisped potato chips to scoop out every lusciously creamy corner jeweled with a briny roe, I happily washed it down with a crisp glass of Friulian orange wine.
A sautéed salad of tender Jersey squid was also memorable, not only for its firmly spiced Thai chili glaze, but also for the myriad textures of charred green beans, watercress, puffed rice, cashews, and herbs that tangled in a bright lime-garlic vinaigrette. The most pleasant surprise among the starters was the alt-hummus dip called cauliflower tahini, a deeply caramelized puree of silky roasted cauliflower and sweet onions that crackled with a hazelnut “dukkah” on top. With soft wedges of house-baked naan flatbread for dipping, each swipe of the creamy puree brought the intricate snap of roasted nuts, sesame seeds, and fennel, the pop of mustard seeds, tart pickled raisins, and the paper-thin snap of shaved cauliflower florettes.
This menu is in constant flux, as Boyce calibrates what’s possible to consistently produce with a tight staffing situation that has quickly revealed the challenges of recruiting talent in Philly’s hypercompetitive market. (“It’s not easy finding good help here,” Berisha says.) The seafood risotto was one victim, dropping from the menu between visits, which is unfortunate, because it was excellent — the rich saffron rice crowned with perfectly cooked shellfish and an aromatic orange cloud of guajillo chile foam.
Boyce says that section of the menu will focus more on handmade pastas, which is fine. The tight nest of linguine had the potential to be great with its fistfuls of Jonah crab, broth, and bread crumbs, but the addition of maitakes — an earthy mushroom I usually love — overshadowed the mild Maine claw meat.
The “large plates” were largely satisfying, and substantial enough to merit prices in the high $20s. A whole branzino, brined in Southeast Asian aromatics then dredged in rice flour and tapioca flour, emerged gloriously crisp from the fryer with downy moist flesh inside and a pungent house-made X.O. sauce for garnish. A gorgeously crisp fillet of pink-fleshed ocean trout came with an herbed green raita yogurt sauce festooned with colorful kumquats and a spring confetti of crunchy watermelon radishes and pea tendrils.
The Spanish mackerel with Indian-style tomato curry, shellfish, and aromatic rice was tasty, but needed a few tweaks — crisper skin and a thinner sauce — to reach its potential. The lighter but boldly spiced Thai-style approach to the monkfish was more convincing, the fish’s meaty medallions basking in a sweet, sour, and spicy riff on tom yum soup sparked with fresh mint and crumbles of lemongrass chicken sausage.
As good as all those seafood options are, I can’t stop thinking about Aether’s burger.
If you’ve been to Mistral, you’ll know it’s one of the highlights there, too, a familiar pleasure amid its more ambitious plates, updated with quality and class. And Boyce delivers it with similar success for Fishtown — all 7 ounces of its dry-aged beef, bacon jam, garlic aioli, and molten Vermont cheddar, wrapped up in a juicy umami boom on a bun.
At $16, it’s one of the best values on a menu that has clear upscale ambitions (hello, $39 steak-frites) but also shows Aether has potential to be a valuable neighborhood player for stylish grazing, oysters, and drinks. It may not be quite the “rare air” attraction its suburban siblings have become. But Aether still adds precious oxygen to a neighborhood already rising to the stratosphere.
1832 Frankford Ave., 267-875-1832; aetherfishtown.com
This sleek and slender seafood restaurant-wine bar from the group behind Princeton’s Elements and Mistral (also in King of Prussia) brings some upscale sophistication to the northern end of Fishtown. Framed by one of the more progressive corners of the city, this globally influenced kitchen doesn’t have quite the trendsetting impact of its suburban siblings. But the ingredients are excellent, the flavors are good, and with a well-curated list of small-producer Euro wines and creative cocktails to complement the beautiful space, aether delivers an overall experience that adds another sheen of polish to Fishtown’s evolution.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Raw bar: oysters, littleneck clams, razor clams in smoked buttermilk, scallops with citrus. Cauliflower tahini; Hamachi sashimi; beef tartare; crème fraîche and trout roe; squid salad; saffron seafood risotto; burger; ocean trout; Spanish mackerel; monkfish; citrus Napoleon; cheese plate.
DRINKS The wine-focused bar features 14 by-the-glass choices and nearly 40 bottles, with an emphasis on Euro producers with a natural/bio bent. Glasses range from a complex Slovenian white (Movia Friulano) to deep Greek red (Kokkinos Xinomavro), a funky Pét-Nat (Domaine Tessier), and an effervescent pink Ameztoi Txakoli. Bottle selections, almost entirely $75 and under, feature quality producers like Bruno Paillard (one of my favorite Champagnes), Jean-Marc Brocard Chablis, Andrea Occhipinti, Gut Oggau Austrian reds. The cocktail bar offers creative combos, with consistent themes of smoky mezcal, absinthe accents, and citrus-forward profiles, but balance and craftsmanship varied between visits.
WEEKEND NOISE There’s a high-energy vibe to the space with swelling tides of ambient noise, but in general, conversation is still possible.
IF YOU GO Dinner Tuesday to Thursday, and Sunday, 4-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5-11 p.m. Closed Monday. Sunday brunch (beginning May 12), 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m.
Dinner entrées $16-$39.
All major cards.
Reservations highly suggested weekends.
Wheelchair-accessible at rear of restaurant.