As owner Joe Beckham sees it, Bait & Switch is more than just another renovated old tavern with a nifty fish fry. It's a statement restaurant, both about Port Richmond's sudden resurgence and the flagging state of the region's fish house genre: "We felt we had something to say about seafood in Philadelphia that wasn't being said."
Our city may be rich with snapper soup history, but the grand icons have largely faded away, along with their repertoire of straightforward classics. The quality of ingredients and skill level of cooking has improved. But seafood has morphed primarily into a more upscale endeavor in which a hunk of striped bass or seared dayboat scallops typically lands in the high $20s and up.
Bait & Switch aims to make the seafood experience casual, affordable, and fun again, without sacrificing freshness or scratch cooking for $18 a plate or less. This may mean doffing your cap to the Captains Wall hung with portraits of seafaring luminaires like Cap'n Crunch, the Skipper from Gilligan's Island, and Love Boat's Merrill Stubing. But from the moment I stepped in from the Belgrade Street winter chill to the bustling warmth of the U-shaped bar at this corner pub, a whiff of air scented with Old Bay and hush puppies instantly transported me to somewhere summery by the sea.
Bring me a mason jar of Schuylkill punch! (Which, thankfully, isn't city tap water, my rum-loving friends.) Set me a salt-anchored tray of clams casino to sail beneath the broiler! And order up a surf and turf . . . "Port Richmond"-style, of course.
For those unfamiliar with this curious relic of Philly hot dog-eana, the much-imitated "combo" created by Levis Hot Dogs in the early 1900s pairs a frankfurter with a fish cake and pepper hash on a bun. It's admittedly as weird as fried oysters with chicken salad, another uniquely bizarre-but-stellar Philly pairing. And it's been bastardized over the years with inferior wieners and doughy fish cake squares that taste like briny mattress pads. But chef Joe Hunt, who successfully collaborated on Loco Pez, Beckham's L.A.-Mex-themed gastropub in Fishtown, has created a compelling new rendition of the oddball hybrid. He subs out the hot dog for spicy kielbasa made nearby at Czerw's and fries a fish cake in cracker meal that's so moist with béchamel inside that it melts like a creamy tide across the griddled link, with the sweet-tart crunch of cool cabbage and pepper hash adding its perk.
That sausage-fish tandem is a perfect nod to the old neighborhood's blue-collar spirit, which hasn't been forgotten even as the longtime Polish and Irish enclave (also home of famed Tacconelli's pizza) has begun to see the stirrings of a Fishtownlike evolution, with a recent rehab of crabby Bonk's Bar by the Grey Lodge crew, the new Gaul & Co. Malthouse (whose "the Wit or Witowski" is a chipped kielbasa cheesesteak), and a cool kid coffee shop, River Wards Cafe, serving ReAnimator beans. Some local institutions, like Czerw's and Stock's Bakery, whose luscious pound cake is served here toasted with fruit for dessert, require no evolution at all.
Bait & Switch, with its social U-shaped bar near the entrance and casual rear dining rooms done up with a tastefully light touch on the nautical theme, feels very much like a hub for some of the neighborhood's newest denizens, a decidedly young crowd in tatts and knit caps that fills the side patio's beer garden when the weather is warm.
There are craft brews aplenty, witty twists on fish house punch (the spicy 95 Project is a personal fave), an impressive list of locally made spirits, and even better wines than expected from a bar on East Somerset Street. An effervescent Broadbent vinho verde was the perfect quencher for a lip-numbing bowl of big Louisiana-style BBQ shrimp bathed in a spicy orange pool of Cajun beer butter.
The service ranged widely between visits from bright and attentive to spacey and distracted. But Hunt's kitchen, which was solid from start to finish (including a snappy little key lime tart), is a good reason to come. Hunt draws on a wide range of influences here, from his first pro experiences in Ocean City, Md., to his family's Southern roots, and the North Philly fried-fish corners near where he grew up. He calls Sid Booker's Shrimp Corner (on North Broad Street) his "benchmark for fried shrimp."
Hunt's fried shrimp command respect, too, as big as paddles once butterflied open and pressed flat for even cooking. Beneath a fine-ground cracker crust, however, they're still delicate and sweet. The deep fryer, no doubt, gets a workout at B&S. But a thoughtful touch keeps the different dishes distinct. The big fillets of fried fluke or haddock that come mounded atop the ample fry basket of assorted seafood are crusted in corn meal batter, as are the clam strips and oysters, which also get marinated in buttermilk and hot sauce. The fish-and-chips fish comes inside in airier corn-starch-club-soda crisp that puffs golden then melts when you take a bite.
There are slightly healthier options, though the fish tacos were dry and dull with too much slaw, ironic considering the Loco Pez connection. But the fresh catches of the day were reliably good, with quality fish cooked any way you'd like (we preferred blackened over broiled). And the big slices of striped bass and John Dory I sampled on different nights were good enough to merit the $24 fee as the only entrées over $20 on the menu. With two sides (try the curry-roasted veggies and chipotle collards), it feels like a solid value.
There were other highlights worth noting. Hunt makes some of the best shrimp and grits in town - with corn ground fresh for him in South Carolina - tender crustaceans tangled with a zesty tomato gravy spiced with Czerw's Cajun kielbasa. I also covet the clams casino, even if, due to early neighborhood feedback, the clam meat is now chopped inside the zesty, moist, bacon-and-pepper stuffings. The angry mussels, braced with anchovy and the extra zing of Czerw's garlic sausage, were impossible to stop eating.
The creamy clam chowder is also excellent, a little thinner than the usual roux-heavy style, but with a briny undertow that calls out true clam character. I only wished the kitchen had been a little more generous in splashing that chowder over the "bait bucket," its wacky fish house riff on poutine that layers crispy cheese curds and Old Bay fries in a bucket beneath that chowder gravy. Then again, what I found at Bait & Switch was already convincing - an appealing new option that fills a void for affordable seafood, and a corner pub with the kind of character a rising new food neighborhood can build on.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Scarpetta in Rittenhouse Square.