[ review ]
I'm on the phone with Mike Stollenwerk, chef/owner of Little Fish, Fish and now Fathom Seafood House, and we're trying to figure out the second variety of East Coast oyster the seafood pub shucked the previous week.
"Conway Royales!" Fathom's chef de cuisine, Robert Holloway, yells from the background.
No. Not Conway Royales.
No. Not White Caps.
No. Not East Dennis, either.
This went on for a while, and though we eventually pinned down Maine's Westport Island as the oyster in question, the exchange illustrates the sheer spectrum of Fathom's shuckable wares. In just three months of business, Stollenwerk estimates more than 100 oyster varieties have traveled from their respective coves, straits, creeks and bays to the raw station fit like a sidecar along Fathom's elevated open kitchen.
The bivalved beauts arrive on shallow metal pans lined with ice, orbiting ramekins of cocktail and tartar sauces (along with the Banyuls mignonette) a high-brow raw bar might loathe to dispense. But Fathom isn't Fish, or even Little Fish for that matter, and the glacially cold, immaculately clean Kusshis, Chef Creeks, Wellfleets and Westports were no less for it.
With a spread of oysters, a frosty Harpoon, sun flooding the restaurant and the Phillies on the plasmas mounted above the bar, I could sit there all day. Or, rather, stand there all day. The yellow concrete bar top, run down the room like a stripe of spicy mustard on a soft pretzel, is too tall. Or the stools are too short. Either way, the setup's not comfortable, and so on another night I made sure to repair to one of the roomy marble-topped tables, set beneath faux-faded portraits of rugged seascapes and windswept chapels.
Before Fathom, these tables had been collecting dust in the garage of Holloway's cousin, who'd salvaged them from a defunct pub. With their scalloped silhouette and baluster-backed captain's chairs, they look like something passengers would have played baccarat around on the Titanic, adding character to Fathom's old-timey interior.
Elements of Fathom look airlifted from Nucky Thompson's Atlantic City, maybe because Stollenwerk, who grew up in Ocean City, originally imagined the restaurant fitting there. But after stumbling across this shuttered space (once a saloon, circa 1901), he decided the concept was a perfect fit for a district with its own seafood tradition. Now Fathom functions as neutral territory for Fishtown's old and new guards, where arrivistes and lifers meet, mingle and arrange to walk each other's dogs over Prima Pils and salt-roasted "we-peel" shrimp. I'm jealous. Those succulent we-peels, thick as my thumbs, aren't available in my 'hood.
Littlenecks, blue crabs and half-lobsters round out the crisp, clean, on-ice items, after which the menu veers off into very rich directions. Stollenwerk isn't in the business of pussifying seafood, and the way he deploys aggressive spice and fat to fish while still keeping the composition sophisticated is what makes his cooking so interesting.
Mostly, the results are insanely tasty: a take on poutine with jumbo lump crab, squeaky mozzarella curds and spicy crab-stock gravy; the gooey fontina-and-lobster grilled cheese on shingles of Metropolitan sourdough; chicken-fried oysters whose zesty crusts preserve the silkiness of the bivalves inside. But eaten cumulatively, they can bust a gut, and upon departure, I didn't so much step out into the gun-shy spring sunlight as waddle.
Of course, I had Fathom's only dessert — Stollenwerk's mom's whoopie pies, packaged in labeled cellophane baggies — tucked safely in my pocket, because ignoring the server's suggestion would have been rude, right? I didn't even make it across Girard before gnashing the heat-sealed bag open like a chocoholic piranha. My fingers sunk into the Fluff-grouted cocoa cookies, so soft my fingers left imprints like on a memory-foam mattress. The filling oozed out the sandwich's sides in a powder-white eclipse. Bake-sale fresh and not too sweet, it was the most delightful whoopie since Sister Act 2.
I'm also down with C-O-D, lightly roasted, flaked and mixed with mashed potato as the filling for Fathom's homey hand-knitted pierogies draped with caramelized-onion garlands — bet they'd be even better with baccala — and the meaty, cherrywood-smoked marlin as the star of an inspired twist on fish tacos. The latter deserved better, though, than Silvert-sourced corn tortillas: cold and stiff as cadavers, an inexcusable offense in Mexidelphia.
Holloway, as executor of Stollenwerk's menu, knows his way around marine life, but ironically, two of my Fathom favorites, both side dishes, didn't even involve seafood. Fat florets of cauliflower, dunked in rice-flour batter (gluten-free) and fried, put every Japanese tempura to shame — so crisp not even the underlying cushion of creamy sambal/lime mayo could dampen the crunch.
And the intense baked beans — they're soaked overnight, cooked four hours with molasses, Worcestershire, ketchup, brown sugar, whole-grain mustard and apple cider vinegar, then dusted with breadcrumbs browned in bacon grease — are the only baked beans I want at every spring picnic and summer barbecue.
Diluted with mignonette, I bet a dab of sticky baked-bean syrup would be outstanding on a Cape May Salt. Or a Beausoleil. Or a Mermaid Strait. Or a Chincoteague. They'll all pass through Fathom's door over the coming months, the perfect excuse to go back.
Fathom Seafood House | 200 E. Girard Ave., 267-761-9343, fathomphilly.com, @fathomphila. Open Mon.-Wed., 4-11 p.m.; Thu., noon-11 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., noon-1 a.m.; Sun., 3-10 p.m.; Sunday brunch served 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Bar till 2 a.m. nightly. Raw bar, $2-$10; dishes, $9-$14; sides, $3.