There’s been something missing in Fishtown as new condos, coffee shops and saloons have been erected in recently years, something dedicated to its history and heritage — fish.
That is, until December 2021, and the newly-opened The Fin, a seafood-centric, un-stuffy white linen restaurant whose promise is one of “bringing the fish back to Fishtown.”
Can’t argue with a clever tag line.
The owners of the Crab du Jour seafood chain spent nearly $6 million to turn the 1000 Frankford Ave. #1 address – the one-time interactive Mad Rex sports bar in the Fillmore Philadelphia/Punchline/Brooklyn Bowl complex – into a warm and woody, but modern, tony and sprawling 10,000-square-foot surf and turf salon that would seat 220-plus pescatarians and their carnivore pals.
And while bar manager Phillip Search (from Bahn Mi and Bottles) is prepping a season of literally hundreds of cocktails and wines, you can’t do fish without a seafood-centric executive chef. That would be Valentin Bay of Citron + Rose and Brauhaus Schmitz fame, whose menu at The Fin will feature Mediterranean specialties and Southern seafood surprises, moving from red snapper to rockfish, from whole lobster to custom-made seafood boils, from chicken and waffles to shrimp and grits, and even a Cajun crab cheesecake dessert.
Metro spoke to Valentin in-between shifts.
Before I ask about your daily menu, tell me about doing a double Seven Fishes Feast for Christmas week – very much an Italian tradition – along with a Southern seafood boil. That’s quite a jump.
For me it’s simple, I love Italian food, and I see similar themes to the cuisine from my native Germany. We also eat fish around Christmas time, and I feel like the tradition has become more widespread than its origins. Food brings us together and doing the dinner in the way we are at The Fin, I feel like it makes the tradition fun and approachable to different people. I also love the idea that we are taking a Louisiana twist on an Italian dinner tradition with our seven fishes seafood boil. It’s shareable, delicious, and brings that fun holiday vibe in a totally new way.
You’re German. How does that affect how you do fish, and who in your family were the big home cooks?
I’m German, from a small town in the south. Growing up I learned cooking from my grandmother who was one of the first generations to veer from just traditional German food to cooking French, Italian and even Asian food; introducing these new traditions into our already rich food lineage.
What did you learn from the decidedly kosher Citron + Rose as well as the not-at-all kosher Brauhaus Schmitz – not just about fish, but meat, the Philly culinary scene? The whole bit.
Both Citron + Rose and Brauhaus taught me to work inside restrictions to become creative and cross reference inspiration from outside a tradition into a more restrictive culinary landscape. For example, at Citron, I made lamb bacon and it was a huge success bringing kosher diners from as far away as New York to have something they normally wouldn’t be able to find. At The Fin, the owners have given me a lot of creative license to run an approachable and yet high quality program. I love the freedom and our focus on quality.
And the local culinary scene?
Philly has been good to me and my favorite thing about the culinary scene here is the synergy I’ve had with the community of culinary professionals. We have drinks, talk food and trade ideas. It is truly the smallest big city in America and those relationships have helped me grow as a chef across a broad variety of culinary methods.
How does that good will in the food world apply to building up Fishtown?
Fishtown has become an entertainment and dining destination, reshaped from what it was just a few short years ago. Girard used to function as a sort of Mason Dixon line. People who lived south or west or on the Main Line would rarely venture to this area for a culinary experience. With the influx of quality restaurants over the last five years and just the sheer number of amazing options in addition to the neighborhood growing exponentially, this is no longer the case. In fact I would say it has usurped Center City as a dining and drinking destination.
Who came up with the “putting the fish back in Fishtown” line and what does its local history when it comes to seafood apply to what you do?
A joke was made in a meeting and the saying just stuck. The local history of this area started with chad, a fish that like salmon are born in fresh water and spend several years in the ocean before returning to spawn. The largest breeding area for this fish used to be the Delaware River. Long before Europeans reached its shores the Lenni-Lenape tribe settled here to take advantage of this food source. They were later joined by Swedish immigrants and others for this same reason. Simply, I’m taking a view of this multicultural tradition of fish and seafood being integral to humanity as an inspiration on a daily basis.
What does making American food from a European point of view mean… Apply that answer to your menu – especially say the jamabala and swordfish?
I have learned that Europeans often don’t hold American food in high regard and I’ve often struggled with explaining to my friends at home that there is indeed a culinary tradition here beyond fast food. The first time I had root beer was in America and I was mind blown, now we make our own American traditional root beer as a dessert on this menu. Cajun and other strong seafood traditions from across the U.S. have furthered my love of the traditional American twist on seafood. I’m eagerly awaiting blue crab season, another strong inspiration for me from this greater region. It’s not just Cajun and seafood, in America there’s a twist on every tradition from Italian to West African. The way I got to understand American food is what I want to showcase here.
What is good to eat tonight, and what is the future of The Fin?
The whole menu as your mood sees fit. If we serve it, we take pride in its preparation from our in-house dry-aged ribeye to our decidedly Asian influenced preparation of whole red snapper. But, really the shrimp and grits. Look, we are a semi-casual spot with amazing beverages and food that work in harmony to bring about a decadent, fun, imbibe culture for everyone from neighborhood regulars to foodies looking for that perfect bite of caviar and bison tartare. The Fin? You get the whole package here and I love it, great food, amazing service, a fun atmosphere and amazing drinks.