Of all the restaurant concepts to cross my desk last year, Grill Fish Café was damn near the top of the anticipation pile. A joint specializing in the coastal seafood cooking of Vietnam?! I was all over that, daydreaming about mammoth crabs, exotic mollusks and head-on prawns in pungent marinades and fiery oils. Sure, you can get seafood dishes at every Vietnamese restaurant in town, but this would be the first one dedicated to this mystery-cloaked subset. And who better to bring it to us than Benny Lai, capo of Philly's reigning royal family of Vietnamese gastronomy?
Grill Fish opened in January after some redecorating of the matchbox-sized space formerly occupied by the Lais' Vietnam Café. Now, wrought-iron schools of fish and tranquil, sun-hazed photos of Vietnamese fisherfolk line the exposed-brick walls, setting the stage for a meal rich in tradition, discovery and omega-3s. Or at least I thought.
There were no mammoth crabs, no exotic mollusks, and the prawns came decapitated, floured, fried and tossed with sautéed bell peppers, onions, garlic and chili, mushing the once-crisp crustaceans' coatings. Instead of some rare, unusual specimen from the South China Sea, there was Italian branzino and American fluke, the former grilled whole, the latter sheathed in panko crumbs, fried and posed over wilted, olive oil-slicked spinach.
Even in today's global economy, Lai just can't source the many species he savored on the beaches of Vietnam during a family vacation last year and has to make due with available alternatives. The fluke made a beautifully cooked sub, moist and crispy in the right places, but take away the sidecar of ginger dipping sauce — about as much fish sauce in there as there is vermouth in a very dry martini — and the dish instantly loses its already-tenuous Vietnamese identity.
The Lais have always been Western-friendly, but never as timidly as Grill Fish. Thrumming chords of lemongrass and garlic, a wicked chicken/sake broth (served with both sweet steamed clams and the mussels with chewy chow fun noodles) showed promise, but even that could have used ballsier doses of fish sauce, chili and lime. And while I loved the tender grilled lamb leg marinated in hoisin, honey, lemongrass and soy, I am still trying to figure out why it's served with lemon aioli and oily grilled zucchini, squash, peppers and onions.
When Vietnam Café lived here, black-eyed-pea pudding and fizzy, fresh-squeezed limeade populated the lacquered tables. In the Grill Fish era, it's fried calamari and chocolate martinis. (They piggyback off Vietnam Café's liquor license; it moved to newer digs next door.) At least the Vietnamese coffee — potent, brewed-to-order La Colombe cut with sweetened condensed milk — still tastes the same. Anyone else smelling a proper Saigon-society coffeeshop in the cards for the Lais? Pourover bar, lemongrass-glazed palmiers, mangosteen croissants ... a guy can dream. And get crabs elsewhere.
Grill Fish Café | 814 S. 47th St., 215-729-7011, grillfishcafe.com. Dinner served Sun. and Tue.-Thu., 5-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-10 p.m.; closed Mon. Appetizers, $7-$12; entrées, $15-$25; desserts, $5.50.