Small restaurant, broad menu

Waluu, a Pacific fish, with a garnish of white beans, tomatoes and greens. (Photograph: Michael S. Wirtz)

Getting bopped on the head with someone's purse is par for the course when you're sitting in a restaurant with only 21 seats and a steady flow of diners squeezing by.

And, like the name says, Little Fish is no whale of a space. In fact, this Bella Vista cubby is one of the most compact dining rooms I've seen, so close to its busy open kitchen and to the street that the white brick walls alternately reflect the flash of fire-blazing pans and of car headlights rounding the corner at Sixth and Catharine.

With the stereo pumping out hip tunes from vintage Jerry Lee Lewis to the Flying Burrito Brothers, there's a lively, casual energy to the room. It has the vibrant glow of a neighborhood place where regulars come often and the staff is really family, from the father-son team manning the grill to the son's charming girlfriend, who occasionally fills in as waitress.

"And that's my mom!" she said proudly, fingering the purse-wielding diner (now seated) who had innocently bumped my guest.

Nobody was complaining, though. Because when it comes to the food, Little Fish defies its size with a surprisingly broad and ambitious seafood menu.

Inevitable, of course, are comparisons to Dmitri's, the venerable Greek seafood shrine in Queen Village. Both are popular little BYOBs with reasonable prices, and both sit on corners of Catharine Street only three blocks apart.

But the similarities end there. Dmitri's has made its name by perfecting the art of consistent Hellenic simplicity, serving fresh seafood sparked with plenty of Greek olive oil and lemon juice and cooked by a coterie of reliable Hmong chefs.

Little Fish owner John Tiplitz and his son, Ian Moroney, have a few more moves in their pantry. They ably draw on flavors from Moroccan to South American and craft each dish on the daily-changing menu with a different sauce and side dish, not the cookie-cutter garnishes that many small restaurants (including Dmitri's) rely on.

Excellent seared scallops may come one night with a garlicky red Spanish romesco sauce of pureed peppers, almonds and smoked paprika. Wonderful escargots with Pernod cream arrive snug inside puff pastry. There is nothing obviously unusual about the wine-steamed mussels, but on both of my visits they were exceptionally fragrant, clean and tender.

Fritto misto is a classic use for spare bits of seafood, but Little Fish makes it a highlight, frying whole smelt and chip-size slivers of monkfish, calamari and scallops dusted with flour. Served with homemade tartar sauce for dipping, this appetizer didn't last long on our table.

My friend the Paris snob pronounced the nicoise salad authentic. I actually think it was better than that, a tousle of vinaigrette-glazed green beans topped with a slice of tuna freshly poached in oil.

The pan-fried crab cake was also superb, crisp over creamy corn chowder that played up the sweetness of the plentiful claw meat inside. Another night, the crab cake showed a completely different personality, picking up the tart, spicy jazz of a corn relish.

Such nightly variations are part of this versatile kitchen's attraction, but a lack of consistency is also its occasional undoing.

Moroney isn't quite as skilled a cook as his father. One Wednesday night when he plied the kitchen's battery of flaming pans (everything here seems to be cooked over blazing burners), the tuna and the salmon were both seared to a crisp. And the intense lobster bisque served with a scallop appetizer clashed with the scallop's delicate juice.

But Tiplitz's cooking wasn't flawless on a previous Tuesday night, either. His "whole" red snapper was dry, as well as headless and missing its tail. The swordfish with rosemary was surprisingly bland despite a splash of herb oil and beet vinaigrette.

But both chefs rallied with other intriguing dishes. Tiplitz sent forth a flaky white fillet of hake "Moroccan" that was nicely seared and perched atop a sultry North African chickpea stew scented with cinnamon, cumin and chiles.

A thick slice of lusciously moist grilled mako shark came topped with zippy chimichurri, a garlicky Argentine mix of minced parsley and vinegar that, though usually paired with meat, was a fine match for the oily fish.

Tiplitz's sole venture into the realm of meat that night was also a delight, transforming some extra brisket from the fall Jewish holidays into a tender, tangy pulled-beef stew ladled over a mound of rich polenta.

Moroney, meanwhile, cooked monkfish - an oft-abused ingredient - to perfection, serving it with mashed potatoes and a rustic root vegetable stew. An entree of waluu (a Pacific Rim fish also known as escolar) was also exceptional. The fish, so moist it was almost sweet, came with a contrasting garnish of soft white beans, tart tomatoes and bitter greens.

Tiplitz arrived here 10 years ago seeking the kindness of Philadelphia's lower rents after a long career in Westchester County, N.Y., where he worked both in kitchens and at the front of the house. With its unpretentious atmosphere and extremely fair prices, no wonder Little Fish has thrived since he opened in 1995.

But with the continuous rush of new BYOBs popping up across Center City, he is aware that established places need to stay relevant. A sharp recent paint job that spruced up the white brick walls and black wainscoting has maximized the small dining room's sense of spaciousness and warmth. New lights dangle from the ceiling like lanterns. Fresh curtains and valances are on order.

Little Fish provides friendly, attentive service even with usually just one server from among a steady lineup of different waitstaff for every night of the week.

One last detail that separates the restaurant from so many other bistros is the array of fine desserts prepared by freelance pastry chef Marie Forcella.

They're the kinds of sweets seen at dozens of other places, yet crafted with such care that they're about as good as can be. There's moist Jewish apple cake. Dense milk chocolate hazelnut torte. Super-creamy cheesecake that sets off bells when dipped into the tart lemon curd on the side. Milk-soaked bread pudding ribboned with pears. Classic fruit torte - lately, with prune filling - topped with a crumbly lattice crust.

But best of all is the chocolate pot de creme, which arrives in a coffee cup with frothy creme anglaise. Each spoonful brings a silken dose of dark chocolate pleasure that melts into an exquisite bittersweet cream.

Call it pudding, if you like.

I must have another bite.