“Opening a restaurant is kind of like getting a tattoo,” Greg Vernick reckons. “Once you have one, all you can think about is getting the next one.”
And he should know. The Cherry Hill native spent the past several years expanding Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s restaurant empire, training chefs at new outposts in places like Vancouver, Tokyo and Qatar. Last year he helped get Talula’s Garden off the ground. And in late April, he finally touched the needle to his own skin (so to speak), opening Vernick Food & Drink near Rittenhouse Square.
It’s a neighborhood restaurant that’s capable of delivering the destination-dining goods—though part of what’s made it a winning debut is the kitchen’s modest aspirations. Because truly, it doesn’t get much more modest than toast, which is the unlikely canvas for many of Vernick’s most satisfying creations.
They don’t sound like much on the menu, but the thick slices of Metropolitan Bakery sourdough bear a tantalizing grill-fired signature and toppings whose depth belies their simplicity. Peas and bacon brought both things two ways: fresh peas clinging to a jade-green puree, and house-cured bacon in crispy lardons and blowtorched prosciutto-style slices. To the promising fromage blanc and pickled cherries, another version added an overachieving underlayer of deeply caramelized onions. Maryland crab with tarragon, steak tartare with freshly grated horseradish: Vernick is money on the bread front. You’ll never meet a globe-trotting veteran fine-dining chef who can do toast any better.
But he also has a knack for finessing exotic notes from plainspoken herbs. Crammed into a slit-open eggplant whose skin’s been burnt to carbon flakes, a hazelnut-strewn confetti of mint, parsley, chives and dill imbues the smoky flesh with unexpected whiffs of Persian cooking. Dill, parsley and shaved celery work a similar magic on a braised beef cheek, bringing that sweet, wintry hunk of tenderness into warmer weather with a springtime cargo of blanched long beans and garbanzos bathed in rosemary-
lavender water. Muckwa (Indian-style candied fennel seeds) inspired the grace note in a salad of roasted beets and Moliterno cheese; pistachio nuts were encrusted with it, delivering a subtle anise undertone to the liveliest plate of beets I’ve had in months.
Yes, occasionally haute cuisine peeks through the casual-dining curtain—an inter-course amuse of sesame-touched tuna tartare quenelles, say, or a Becherovka sour cocktail whose egg-white meringue, inscribed with a zigzag of Aztec bitters, is so thick and lasting that someone brings a spoon for it when the liquid’s gone. For hard-core epicures, there’s a warm globe of egg curds scrambled in brandied shrimp butter, topped with cayenne-
flecked whipped yogurt, topped in turn with cold sea urchin gonads. This is, in the way of certain cheeses prized for their decadent fetor, simultaneously delicious and disgusting. So let that be both a recommendation and a warning.
The only real weak point in my meals came at dessert. There was an undercooked blueberry pie, its crust more soggy than crumbly. A chocolate espresso croquant came off better—but also a little junkier, like a Kit Kat bar imprisoned in a high-end Eskimo Pie.
But for the most part, simplicity is Vernick’s watchword. Sidle up to the smooth poured-concrete bar to nibble on crispy potatoes with shishito peppers, and bask in the breeze wafting through the windows, wide open to Walnut Street. Or belly up to the kitchen counter in back, past the stack of split cordwood, and tug at cool tubes of fresh mozzarella—pulled twice daily—spattered with rhubarb jam and crumbs of pumpernickel toast. The upstairs dining room offers another distinct atmosphere, splashed with light streaming in through the balconied windows but cozy beneath the short ceiling.
“I never expected to have a 3,000-square-foot restaurant with my name on it,” Vernick says. But the way that space is broken up makes it feel more intimate. And so does Ryan Mulholland, the amiable general manager, who abandoned his life in mid-step—like any good Boston kid would when his best pal’s got his inaugural date with the tattoo needle—to help Vernick open his first place. Along with every server I had over a stretch of four visits, Mulholland’s sharp memory and easygoing enthusiasm make this a genuinely amiable spot. It’s not often that a bartender tromps up a flight of stairs to have a quick chat with a customer he served a week before, but it happened here. And not because anyone saw through my alias, either—at least, not if Vernick spoke the truth about failing (like every other restaurateur I’ve reviewed in this column) to pick me out of the crowd.
Vernick’s staff contributes much to the chef’s homecoming. If you spend long enough traveling in somebody else’s caravan—even that of a Michelin-star magnet like Vongerichten—you risk losing the ability to lead your own. But that hasn’t happened to Greg Vernick. I just hope he doesn’t go rushing off for that next tattoo soon, because this one keeps growing on me.