In the decade before he opened Two Fish—a captivating little BYO in Haddonfield—last September, chef Mike Stollenwerk had owned or been involved in eight restaurants.
The Ocean City native first earned acclaim at his tiny, highly personal BYO, Little Fish, which opened in Philadelphia in 2006 and was named one of the best seafood restaurants in the country by Bon Appetit. After selling Little Fish to his chef de cuisine, Stollenwerk opened a bigger, liquor-licensed version, Fish, in 2009 and added a gastropub, Fathom, in 2010. In blog posts and articles back then, the term “empire building” came up a lot.
Then the wunderkind’s fortunes fell. Fathom closed in 2011. Stollenwerk moved Fish to a hotel in 2012 and consulted for the hotel’s Rhino Bar. Both eateries folded in 2013. Stollenwerk took on consulting gigs in Philly. Through no fault of his own, the three restaurants with which he was involved for a time, are no longer around.
It’s been, to say the least, “a complicated journey,” Stollenwerk admits. “I learned my lesson with quickly expanding.”
The obvious thread tying those ill-fated eateries together was the chef’s affinity for seafoood. “I love working with fish and shellfish because they are so versatile in the ways they can be cooked,” he says. “It is exciting and challenging, especially in pairing with ingredients that will not overpower the fish.”
With Two Fish—the name refers to him and his girlfriend/partner, Felice Leibowitz—Stollenwerk, 40, to some extent is hitting rewind. Like his first restaurant, Two Fish is small (26 seats), BYO, accessibly priced, and dedicated to pristine seafood flown in from many lands and prepared with flavors and techniques rooted in many lands. Whereas Little Fish was a bit ramshackle, Two Fish’s attractive materials and clean, simple design are inviting.
Stollenwerk and Leibowitz revamped what had been a pizzeria just off Haddonfield’s main drag, Kings Highway. They introduced brass light fixtures, butterscotch drapes and a wall of inset candles.
“I always had in my mind that I wanted to recreate a place similar to Little Fish, but I never really found the right spot,” Stollenwerk says. “We were both ready to move back to Jersey after 16 years in the city. We were looking for a small town to plant roots in, and everything we were looking for, we found in Haddonfield.”
Word spread quickly about Two Fish. On my first visit, in early November, the dining room was packed. Lacking reservations, I had to wait 45 minutes. It was packed on my second visit a month later. Granted, there are only 26 seats. But you have to give people a reason to fill those seats. Stollenwerk is doing that.
Dinner starts with warm, crusty slices of baguette from Philadelphia’s Wild Flour Bakery and a condiment, including on some nights a delicious, herbaceous chimichurri Stollenwerk has been serving since Little Fish was just a hatchling.
The menu is concise, with just a handful of appetizers and entrées. It features time-tested Stollenwerk pleasures like Prince Edward Island mussels in coconut broth braced with Thai red curry, lemongrass, ginger and cilantro. Another proven hit, indeed a must order, is his seared skate wing entrée on chewy, truffled spaetzle with melted leeks in a Parmesan broth whipped to a froth.
There’s a terrific Spanish octopus starter. The tentacles, poached and then grilled, get a Greek accent from sautéed chickpeas, creamy cubes of eggplant, and garlicky skordalia made with yogurt instead of the traditional potatoes. Broadening the flavor profile, slivered Fresno chiles add enticing lashes of heat.
Calamari at Two Fish deftly sidesteps the deep fryer. The chef cuts Rhode Island calamari into thin strips and sautés them Sicilian style with black olives, balsamic vinegar, capers, tomatoes and raisins for a concerted sweet-sour-salty sensation. A few toasted pine nuts are sprinkled on top, but not enough to distribute a consistent crunch that would make the dish even better.
Yellowfin tuna steak is presented in three slabs, each showing a glistening, medium-rare center. Tuna, being so silky and lean, cries out for lusciousness, which Stollenwerk provides with a poached-egg vinaigrette. It also wants contrasting texture; a lemony pistachio aillade answers the call.
Salmon. Ubiquituous, inevitable salmon. How to rescue it from tedium? Stollenwerk opens with pastrami spices, hardly a novel move. But his plan unfolds seductively as he pan roasts the fillet from Vancouver’s Skuna Bay and pairs it with plump rye berries, whole-grain mustard sauce, and crunchy, julienned snow peas and radishes. It’s a win-win-win for the chef, the guest and the protein itself.
Another win is Stollenwerk’s reprise of Little Fish’s popular five-course Sunday prix-fixe—the price, a bargain at $28, is the same as it was in 2006.
Note that on Sunday, the prix-fixe is the only option. There are no choices in any of the five course, so leave picky eaters at home. A November prix fixe began with tuna crudo, bright with ginger and lime. The second course, a beet, goat cheese and pistachio salad, overcame its familiarity with excellent execution. Then came house-made cavatelli with clever cod meatballs in salsa verde. That was followed by a version of the Anglo-Indian rice and fish dish, kedgeree, prepared with a delicate, slow-roasted square of salmon. For dessert, Stollenwerk sent out a turtle cookie cup filled with chocolate and caramel and served with the best coffee ice cream I’ve had—not too sweet, saturated with pure flavors of coffee and milk.
Credit Stollenwerk’s mother, Karen Adams, a talented home cook who makes all the Sunday prix-fixe desserts, including the turtle, and all of Two Fish’s ice creams. Her Sunday hit parade includes a dense apple-butter cake and a date cake glazed with a brown sugar-Bourbon sauce. On weekdays, Stollenwerk keeps pace with, for example, a smooth, bittersweet-chocolate budino topped with cinnamon whipped cream and chopped jalapeño-spiced almonds—a riff on the flavors of Mexican chocolate.
In his Philadelphia days, Stollenwerk was never the one who talked of empire building. He got ahead of himself but has settled down. He remains ambitious—now in the best way.
“There are definitely no other projects in the works,” he says. “We are going to plant our roots here and focus on quality and consistency.”Click here to leave a comment
Cuisine Type:American - Seafood
Price Details:Appetizers, $9-$15; entrées, $26-$29; desserts, $7-$9; Sunday five-course prix-fixe, $28
Ambience:Cozy and abuzz with bonhomie/
Service:Warm and friendly, though with just 26 seats and usually just one server, expect some delays.