The way this year began, you might have wondered if Philadelphia's restaurateurs were competing to see who could offer the priciest dinner in town. From Zahav to Table 31 to the short-lived Kaizan, a lot of folks appeared to think that the only possible end to the orgy of platinum cards would be if customers started paying with gold doubloons instead.
One can only guess at the regret wrought by the last three months. There are no bailouts for the restaurant business. So for foodies feeling their own pain, there is no time like the present for a $28 five-course Sunday meal at Little Fish.
Ever since Michael Stollenwerk bought this tiny spot and installed himself as boss of the kitchen — which takes up fully half of the space — I have been hearing about rekindled love affairs with this place at Sixth and Catharine. Unfortunately, it took me so long to heed the praise that Bon Appetit beat me to the punch, pegging it one of the 10 best seafood joints in the country earlier this month.
The bad news is that getting a reservation for the once-a-week tasting menu can be as irritating as the price is cheap. I was first on the waiting list for a table when my cell phone rang as I cycled through a Center City intersection. After missing the call by half a second and dialing back five minutes later, I was told that I had blown my chance. The table had gone to No. 2 in line. Does the hostess run radio-call-in contests on the side? I was too flummoxed to ask if they were trying to alienate customers on purpose.
Happily, that indifference did not carry over to the dinner service — or to dinner. Except for a boring arugula salad and a lackluster runny-icing topping on an otherwise superb bread pudding, Stollenwerk's creations were splendidly conceived and executed with focus. Seared marlin needed nothing more than a bit of cress and a touch of Tamari to showcase its extreme freshness. Tiny but intense morsels of bacon rode the concavities of brussels sprout leaves beneath a luscious medallion of escolar. The Madras curry broth in a bowl of mussels was the essence of culinary clarity, every scent singing its own distinct note. And a lenient pace reinforced the warm intimacy of what by all rights should be a take-out joint.
What a pleasure to close out a rough year with the rarest of verdicts: Sunday at Little Fish would be worth every dollar even if it cost a few more.
Little Fish | 600 Catharine St., 215-413-3464, littlefishphilly.com
Hours: Daily, 5:30-10 p.m.
Appetizers, $8-$12; Entrées, $25-$27; Sunday prix fixe dinner, $28/person