by Len Lear
While mega-star restauranteurs like Marc Vetri, Jose Garces and Stephen Starr are currently monopolizing most of the oxygen whenever they open a restaurant, there are some other super-talented individuals opening restaurants these days that you can actually get into and not have to wait an hour or more to be seated.
Case in point: the under-the-radar Headhouse Crab & Oyster Co., which opened in October at 119 South St., a beautiful location that housed a fine Portuguese restaurant, Mallorca, a few years ago. This casual, seashore-inspired seafoodery represents the evolution of one of Philly’s best up-and-coming executive chefs, Mike Stollenwerk, who must be the most self-effacing elite chef in center city.
We have been to three of his restaurants in the past couple years (Fish and Branzino as well as Headhouse), and I have yet to see Mike in the dining room, unlike so many media-centric chefs in center city who like to schmooze with diners. On two occasions at Headhouse — even when numerous food writers were in the dining room at one time — Stollenwerk failed to make an appearance. As the late witch hunter Sen. Joe McCarthy once said, “That is the most unheard of thing I ever heard of.”
But the only thing that really counts is Mike’s talent in the kitchen, and that is a slam-dunk. The 36-year-old native of South Jersey’s beach towns got his start at age 13 as a busboy at Daniel’s Restaurant in Somers Point. He dived into the deep waters so quickly that at the callow age of 15 he was cooking alongside the restaurant’s chef, and by 19 he was a sous chef at the upscale Washington Inn in Cape May. He later graduated from the Academy of Culinary Arts in Mays Landing at the top of his class and proceeded to the prestigious Culinary Institute of America.
At the age of just 25, Mike purchased Café Loren in Avalon, and when it closed for the winter, he worked in Philly restaurants like Avenue B and Davio’s. In January, 2007, he purchased Little Fish, a goldfish-sized BYOB at 6th and Catherine Streets in the city’s Bella Vista section. Before long, the lines were so long in the 23-seat restaurant that Mike was literally turning away more customers than he was serving.
Within one year Little Fish had been named the “Third Best New Seafood Restaurant” in the country by Bon Appetit magazine. It was also featured in Philadelphia magazine’s “Top 50 Restaurants of 2008” issue and won their “Dish of the Year”designation. It was inevitable that Little Fish would not be little for long.
By 2010, therefore, Stollenwerk was the owner of Little Fish, Fathom Seafood House in Fishtown and Fish at 17th and Lombard, where Astral Plane had made waves for three decades. However, Mike soon found himself drowning as a hands-on (or tails-on) owner of three seafood restaurants.
Thus, Mike sold Little Fish and Fathom Seafood House (now East Girard Gastropub) to their respective chefs de cuisine, and in January of 2011 he moved Fish to 1234 Locust St., which had 90 seats, an open kitchen and a liquor license. After a widely publicized dispute with the landlord, though, Mike left Fish and in April of last year took over the reins at Branzino, an 11-year-old seafood cathedral of culinary excellence at 261 S. 17th St.
After about a year, however, the peripatetic chef left Branzino, where he is reportedly still a consultant, and several months later reappeared at Headhouse. “I thought it was a no-brainer to work with Stollenwerk and bring one of the top seafood chefs in the country in to do a menu that’s fun, easy to enjoy and at the same time accomplished in its own way,” explained Headhouse owner David Ralic. “Plus, Philadelphia needed a fresh take on a seafooder, especially on this side of town.”
Upon entering Headhouse, you see a spectacular semi-circular bar, high ceilings, reclaimed hardwood floors from a 130-year-old Bucks County barn, big circular mirrors, wrought iron, ceiling fans and chandeliers, a side room with picnic tables, a brick wall and a fountain with a stone mermaid and a separate raw bar with blackboard specials. In the main dining room are gorgeous, brightly colored murals with a nautical theme, including one on the ceiling, a la Michelangelo.
Stollenwerk definitely has a flair for interesting combinations of top-quality ingredients that put their best fin forward. Some of the dishes we thoroughly enjoyed were the traditional clams casino ($8), crab and corn chowder ($5), pan-seared crab with a divine remoulade sauce ($11), a lobster grilled cheese sandwich with Fontina cheese and green tomato ($14) and a sublime, unexpected smoked salmon Reuben ($11).
Headhouse Crab & Oyster Co also features a bar program that focuses on local ingredients whenever possible such as the Moscow Mule, using Penn 1681 Rye Vodka, and the Salty Dog made with Bluecoat Gin, grapefruit and a salt rim. Other local selections include Newbold IPA, Kenzinger, Dogfish Head IPA and Yards IPA.
One issue for any center city restaurant is parking. Many people are not aware of it, but on Wednesdays throughout the year, all meter and kiosk parking is free. (Both of our recent visits to Headhouse were on Wednesdays.) And we were surprised to find actual parking spaces within one block of the restaurant on 2nd Street and Front Street.
Stollenwerk once told a reporter that if he were not a chef, he “would want to be an undercover ATF agent because it seems exciting and would bring something new each day, like cooking.” I would urge him to stick to cooking.
For more information, call 215-418-0600 or visit www.headhousecrabandoyster.com.