Vernick Food & Drink is serving up cozy, internationally-inspired American food.
No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t figure out how “arctic char, crispy skin & dill” fit under the “raw” section of the menu at Vernick. Were they quickly torching the skin, like at a sushi counter? Was it going to be scraped free of fish, deep fried and used as a serving vessel?
The answer was infinitely more inventive than that: Thick, meaty thumbnails of char and a lovely aromatic chili oil were divvied up on the plate by dried-then-fried skin. These crispy shards offset the meat itself not just in terms of flavor—briny against the fish’s spicy sweetness—but also texturally, their snap highlighting the unctuousness of the meat.
This is the sort of smart work being done by Gregory Vernick and his team at Vernick Food & Drink in Rittenhouse, one of the newest and most exciting entries into Philadelphia’s ever-expanding restaurant scene. He’s a veteran of Jean-Georges, having traveled the world for his restaurants, and also working in the kitchen at Talula’s Garden during the build-out phase here. He has beautifully internalized the lessons of both experiences, sending out food that’s inventive yet rooted, global in inspiration yet American at its core, and all in a space that’s deeply welcoming. To that end, his wife, Julie, runs the door, and, behind the scenes, keeps the business running. Up front, she sets a tone not unlike a perfect hostess at a particularly lovely dinner party.
And what a dinner party it is. We started with smoky, charred sourdough topped with sweet fried zucchini, little dabs of chèvre, and impeccable white anchovies. All of this was generously draped with squash blossoms that had been wilted by a quick pass beneath the blowtorch, lending the construction both a hint of lift as well as a sort of visual exclamation point—fully justified for a deceptively simple blockbuster like this.
Silky red and gold beets, which shimmered like jewels in the ample natural light that floods into the upstairs dining room, were dressed in a red-wine vinaigrette. They came crowned with squares of nutty-sharp Moliterno cheese, and were scattered with sweet pistachios candied with fennel seeds. There’s a real sense of the artisanal here, and it’s used not to show off but, rather, to transform already exquisite components into something extraordinary.
Those pistachios are a good example. So, too, is the homemade mozzarella, its deeply lactic character a bravely unprepossessing palette for the rhubarb jam, itself walking the tightrope between sweet and sour. I only wish bread were brought out to every table in the beginning. For such a warm-souled restaurant, its absence—unless you ask for it specifically—is perplexing. When I did request a plateful to scoop up the rest of the rhubarb, I was given the warm, charred, oiled sourdough; it was perfect. More of that next time, please, and from the beginning.
Potato ravioli was the only minor letdown, though not as a result of any inherent flaw of concept. The flavors were there, but far too muted as a result of under-seasoning. This is a shame, because the pasta itself was fantastically delicate, the potato filling dreamy, the accompanying pulls of lamb neck moist and tender. The entire time, however, I just kept on yearning for more seasoning to allow the dish to achieve its full potential.
Fortunately, the pork blade steak suffered no such problems. In fact, it was a rollicking winner, sliced into medallions, pink-centered, and as earthy-sweet as so much pork still tends to be a blank canvas. Alongside brightly bitter mustard greens and sweet-tart red-onion marmalade, all of it tied together with a classic Dijon mustard vinaigrette emulsion, this was one of the best pork dishes I’ve tasted all year.
Desserts follow suit, and even if the butterscotch and smoked chocolate parfait lacked much smoke character, it was nonetheless a light, elegant finish. The carrot cake, however, was a stunner: layered in flavor, almost impossibly moist, and topped with a cream cheese and fromage blanc vanilla icing as addictive as any in the city right now.
Vernick Food & Drink is already a seriously successful addition to our town, and yet Vernick himself is still tweaking his recipes with regularity in an attempt to inch them ever closer to embodying his exacting vision. If he’s still striving this hard, I can only imagine the heights he’ll achieve here. It promises to be a fun, tasty ride for us all.
2031 Walnut St. 267.639.6644. vernickphilly.com
Cuisine type: Internationally inspired American bistro.
Hours: Tues.-Sun., 4:30pm-11am (bar); 5pm-1am (kitchen).
Price range for brunch: $6-$68 (but most dishes top out at $26).
Atmosphere: Sophisticated and comfortable.
Food: Smartly conceived, well-executed and generally delicious.
Service: Low-pressure, slickly choreographed and very informed.