On an unseasonably warm First Friday evening in November, chef Mike Stollenwerk surveys his new space in Old City. “This place will work out great,” he says, taking in the high ceilings and exposed brick at 26 N. Third Street. The BYOB 26 North opens next week.
To go with his new restaurant, Stollenwerk has a new look. “I lost 160 pounds in one year doing Muay Thai,” he says.
26 North looks brand new with its slate floors, sleek marble counter and white subway tiles. But like the reclaimed wood prevalent in the space, there’s something familiar, too, refashioned for the present day.
To start, there’s the menu at 26 North, focused mainly on fish. That’s been Stollenwerk’s thing since 2007 when he owned Bella Vista’s much-loved Little Fish — which has new owners since his parting — and then Fish, which had several Center City locations before he moved onto working for other local restaurateurs.
The menu at 26 North has other food groups too, like grilled lamb loin or the whole wheat fettuccine with zucchini. But Stollenwerk is also reviving hits from Little Fish, with quirky twists.
“Seafood is challenging to cook correctly,” says Stollenwerk, adjusting one of the oversized vintage local newsprint photos that adorn 26 North. “There are many different sea foods, all of which require particular care. It’s not like a ribeye or a filet mignon, where you’ll do much the same with each cut. Tuna you can serve raw, sear rare or do in olive oil. You can’t grill whitefish because it’s flaky.”
Another aspect to eating off Stollenwerk’s menu, in his opinion, is that most people can’t cook fish at home — at least not well. “Or they don’t want to. It’s a pain to buy right and do without a mess,” he explains. “You know how many people tell me they have a striped bass and don’t know what to do with it, or what to put with it as a side? Fish is hard because you don’t want to overpower the subtlety of it. There’s a lot to think about.”
The 26 North menu includes Stollenwerk’s popular dishes from past restaurants, including Portuguese fish soup, chargrilled octopus with pickled peppers and simply prepared mains like striped bass with celery root puree.
“I never went in for turning vegetables into foam or anything weird,” the chef says. “I just keep things simple and bring out the natural clean flavor of the fish.”