Michael Stollenwerk isn't making excuses. And he's hardly the only chef who found acclaim young and then proceeded, with ambitions brimming over, to follow one dubious career move after the next.
But as the gifted seafood chef stepped up the ladder from the tiny BYOB called Little Fish that launched his star in 2009, to a liquor license with his tonier Fish near Graduate Hospital in 2011, and then yet another crosstown jump two years later to a bigger version of Fish, it seems there was not an opportunity he could decline.
The last step, though, was the big fall, as the restaurant failed within a year due to money issues and a partnership gone sour.
"I made my choices. You live and learn," says Stollenwerk, 39. "But I'm like that girl who picks the wrong dude every time."
Looking back on it, after two years adrift through various short gigs (Branzino, Headhouse Crab & Oyster Co.), followed by eight months of self-imposed exile in Indianapolis to cook at a country club, Stollenwerk concedes, "I would have been very happy just staying at Little Fish."
Little Fish is still thriving, of course, under the ownership of his former sous-chef, Chadd Jenkins. But Stollenwerk's return to Philly with 26 North BYOB in Old City is the next best thing - and has potential to become even better.
The 46-seat room on Third Street just north of Market is long and spacious, its exposed brick walls and bare wood tables illuminated by Edison bulbs dangling off pulleys for a stylish postindustrial look. (The bank of lockers stacked beside the back table where we sat was a questionable touch. I hear they're trendy in design circles, but whose workout clothes, I wondered, were piled inside?)
More important, Stollenwerk, a once-rotund 390-pounder who lost 160 in a year, is in a healthy frame of mind. And he's cooking that way, too, with a fish-centric menu here that will remind you why he came to prominence to begin with.
A thick slice of striped bass comes perched over a bowl of steamed clams, raised like a king atop their skyward open shells so the skin remains cracker crisp over a red pepper broth spiced with chorizo and soft gigante beans. Luscious sashimi slices of Alaskan salmon belly are set over citrus cream and glossed with lemon oil beneath pickled fennel fronds and a scattering of tiny, crunchy cubes of pumpernickel "migas."
A creamy puck of crab cake bound in housemade mayo and sweet with claw meat bejeweled by luxurious morsels of jumbo lump is as good as there is in Philadelphia right now, boosted by butter enriched with orange crab fat and the tang of marinated artichokes on the bottom.
The city has been short on seafood-focused restaurants lately. But for a town where every menu once had a crab cake - just a few years ago - its appearance here feels like a familiar old comfort, even retro in the same way that 26 North's seared tuna, salmon, and steak with potatoes also do.
But with crisp execution, a focus squarely on good ingredients and sharp grace notes, Stollenwerk keeps most of them fresh. Three gorgeous heart-shape hunks of sushi-grade yellowfin are impossible to resist over an inky gloss of black garlic sauce Asianized with soy, sweet miso, and the umami depth of mushrooms. Beautifully browned diver scallops, still moist inside, ride between the pop of pickled mustard seeds and the earthy sweetness of baby beets in sherry vinaigrette. A small bowl of Sicilian squid, the fresh calamari rings poached for just 30 seconds to a delicate tenderness, is a textural play when tossed with soft beads of pastina in a tomato glaze sparked by fruity currants, toasty pine nuts, piquant capers, and black olives.
A bowl of perfectly steamed Blue Bay mussels in a Thai-inspired curry is a Stollenwerk standby that was as satisfying as ever, the mussels clean and tender, the coconut broth rife with lemongrass and spice.
Our servers were pleasant and professional enough, though sometimes a little awkward when the room got busy. But mostly the rhythm of the meal needed work. This was especially true on a bustling Friday night, when the dishes sped to our table at such a breakneck pace we were rushed on to our second course - though I'd asked them to slow the pace.
There were weak moments on the plate, too, with some dishes that felt dated or just tired. Stollenwerk's signature skate with truffled spaetzle is one example, the fish encased too thickly in a rice flour crust, the soft dumplings over-browned to an unyielding crisp, and a Parmesan broth so laced with truffle oil it reeked like cheap perfume. (Can we please be done with truffle oil already?)
A few other potentially good dishes slipped on details that held them back from great. I loved the idea of pastrami-spiced mahi mahi, but too much seasoning overwhelmed the fish and its earthy Brussels sprout-rye berry garnish. The seared Skuna Bay salmon with caper vinaigrette was solid. But the curious garnish of a rail-shape "yogurt gnudi" looked and ate like a completely tasteless chickpea (or tofu) fry.
The notion of onion soup reimagined as creamy bisque is good. But 26 North's bread-thickened soup had lost too much of its onion savor beneath the dairy richness. On the contrary, I thoroughly enjoyed the headily spiced fennel broth and perfectly cooked shellfish of the Portuguese fish soup. But I agreed with my guest that such a rustic dish - also hearty with potatoes and kale - felt unnaturally small as a modestly portioned starter soup.
In general, though, the portions and quality of ingredients were generous enough to merit the upscale prices. The half-pound slice of "bistro filet" (a tender shoulder cut also known as "teres major") was a prime-grade beef value at $29, with crisply fried peanut fingerling potatoes and a watercress blue cheese salad that's as classic as it gets.
The steak is a nice alternative for the non-fish eaters who are bound to be part of any large party. But Stollenwerk dates his brief absence from the city's scene even more with his other alternative-eater item: whole wheat egg fettuccine with zucchini laces, walnuts, and whipped ricotta. It is a tasty (albeit somewhat artless) pile of noodles.
"It's my vegetarian dish!" he says proudly.
Of course, that's so 2013. Doesn't he know the eggless and dairy-free vegans write the special-interest menu rules for Philly in 2016?
But there's one thing Stollenwerk has made clear in this promising comeback effort: He's eager to learn from his mistakes and keep on cooking.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Front Street Cafe in Fishtown. firstname.lastname@example.org
26 NORTH BYOB (TWO BELLS OUT OF FOUR)
26 N. Third St., 267-239-5900; 26northbyob.com
After a few years adrift following the closure of his Fish, chef Michael Stollenwerk has returned to Philadelphia and his BYOB roots with an Old City bistro where he can focus on the kind of elegant, ingredient-forward seafood cooking that launched his star at Little Fish. The long industrial space is basic, and the service is pleasant enough, despite some rushed pacing. But Stollenwerk's comeback alone is worth the visit, as well as an added boost both to the city's flagging seafood scene and a neighborhood that wants to prove it's still a destination for grown-up dining.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Salmon belly; Sicilian calamari; Thai-curried mussels; crab cake; diver scallops; striped bass with clams and chorizo; tuna with black garlic sauce; bistro filet of beef; chocolate-hazelnut torte.
BYOB Bring a crisp white wine (see the Berthier Pouilly-Fumé in today's "Drink"), or a light pinot noir to pair with the seafood-centric menu.
WEEKEND NOISE Brick walls and hardwood floors stoke a boisterous 88-decibel din, but modest crowds and tall ceilings keep conversation possible. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Lunch Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner Monday through Thursday, 5-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until 11 p.m. Closed Sunday.
Dinner entrees, $21-$29.
Visa and MasterCard only.
Reservations highly recommended.