Tucked in a row of commercial spaces on 47th Street, right off Baltimore Avenue in West Philadelphia, Grill Fish Café might be easy to pass by. Its small footprint is overshadowed by Vietnam Cafe, its larger sister restaurant next door, but this might just be the best part about it. The tiny interior is intimate and quiet, with calming dark colors, and vivid photographs of scenes from Vietman hang on the walls. The waitstaff provide friendly, unobtrusive service, and mellow music enhances the relaxed feel.
Owner Benny Lai has built his reputation at both locations of Vietnam Cafe on the authentic, bold flavors of his homeland and Grill Fish is no different, though the menu is edited and fine tuned in comparison. As you might expect from the name, seafood is the star of the show here, though land creatures also have their opportunity to shine. The menu begins with an appetizers selection heavy on mollusks and crustaceans: grilled squid and fried calamari, shrimp three different ways (grilled, crispy, or in pancakes), and mussels or clams steamed in aromatic broths.
Entrees run the gamut, from pan-fried fluke to a whole cornish hen. On a recent visit, the Hanoi Fish (a hot pot of tilapia in a dill-infused broth), and the Shaking Beef (wonderfully tender cuts of marinated beef tenderloin on a bed of soy-vinaigrette dressed watercress) were highlights. Throughout the generous portions, the flavors were exciting, but balanced. Fresh herbs, hints of lemongrass and chili, veggies and peanuts all made their apperances, but in nuanced ways that set the dishes apart from less creative Vietnamese fare.
Desserts are more standard, with a rotation of ice creams and cakes listed on the specials board. Drinks-wise, Grill Fish bats for both teams: a small selection of beer, wines, and cocktails are available for purchase Friday through Sunday, and the restaurant is BYOB Tuesday through Thursday (no corkage fee!). Grill Fish is only open for dinner, and is closed on Mondays.