The Revisit: Vernick Food + Drink
Every restaurant has an inaugural “regular,” and for Vernick, it was me.
At least that’s what chef Greg Vernick divulged, with a chuckle, when I called to ask a few questions about a late-spring meal. It was news to me. It seems that after I paid my third visit — a bit too quickly on the heels of my first two upon its 2012 opening — general manager Ryan Mulholland giddily proclaimed that the restaurant’s first serial patron was officially in the bag.
Whereupon I returned once more — and then completely disappeared for almost three years.
Turns out I’m a pretty lousy regular. In time, Mulholland started thinking that maybe his first loyal customer had actually been the exact opposite. Critics, after all, are the gigolos of the restaurant world: forever dropping last month’s mistress for one in a newer dress.
Of course we’re also the pimps — and I don’t mind taking credit for pointing plenty of other people toward Vernick, some of whom turned into the bona fide regulars that my review schedule prevented me from becoming. It’s funny to remember the way they stared at me when I couldn’t stop talking about Greg Vernick’s toast.
“Toast? You’re seriously telling me to go to dinner because they have toast?”
Now it all seems inevitable. Two weeks after my review, Craig Laban put toast in the first sentence of his own. Eventually the toast love-in stretched from here to the pages of Bon Appetit. (They led with the Maryland crab and jalapeno version.)
But Greg Vernick, for one, was taken by surprise. He only started out making toast as a bar snack, he told me. Then it took off as an appetizer, and in no time flat, demand so completely obliterated the kitchen’s baking capacity that they had to switch to Metropolitan Bakery’s sourdough loaves.
“We started off doing five loaves a night. Now we do 17,” he marveled.
Which is basically enough to feed everyone reading this article for a week. So you know what? That’s the last thing I’m going to say about toast. You’ve heard about Vernick’s toast. You’ve eaten Vernick’s toast. You probably love Vernick’s toast. I sure do. But as my long-overdue revisit convinced me: Vernick is too fantastic a restaurant to just talk about its toast.
Want something just as fun to chew on? Try his tuna poke. Dressed with sweet soy and sesame, the scarlet cubes of raw yellowfin snapped, crackled and popped with radish coins, macadamia nuts and mung bean sprouts—a salvo of textures that put even the liveliest corn-nut ceviche to shame.
Close on its heels the kitchen sent out a second raw fish, though we hadn’t ordered one. (It’s a good bet that Mulholland recognized me, even years later, as his prodigal regular when I finally came back in, but friends who eat there more often say complementary dishes occasionally come their way, too.) It featured, very simply, striped jack with a limey avocado puree and jalapeno oil. If the tuna poke was a dance party, this one was a philosopher staring at the surface of an unruffled lake: austere and elemental, stripped down to only what was absolutely necessary. Honestly, my wife and I could have walked out after our last bite of it and been happy (if still a little hungry) for the rest of the night.
(Perhaps we could have walked home telling everyone we encountered that raw fish was the only thing they needed to know about Vernick. “What about the toast?” they surely would have replied. “Toast?” we could have retorted, “Please…”)
We would have missed the sweet-pea ravioli, though—their ricotta-enriched fillings folded together with egg whites to yield a mousse-like lightness. Minty morsels of braised rabbit were strewn among the pea purses, under a crispy sprinkle of dehydrated black olives and breadcrumbs. (“Forget about the raw fish,” we could have then evangelized. “Head straight for the pasta!)
Vernick has moved gradually away from dairy in his cooking, but a warm parmesan custard was both lovely and surprising: steamed until just barely set, showered with chanterelles, dolloped with a ramp-top pesto, and garnished with pickled long-hot chile rings whose spicy contrast was as welcome as it was unexpected.
A swing back to seafood returned us to the light, clean cooking that has become one of the restaurant’s best qualities; the menu’s preponderance of fish and vegetables, relatively unburdened by butter and cream, makes it easy to eat expansively but still walk out feeling light on your feet. A filet of halibut mobbed with zucchini, carrots and asparagus came half-submerged in a fish fumet enriched with a sweet-onion soubise. Underneath lay a poblano puree that steadily infiltrated the broth, slowly transforming its initially delicate profile into a robust soup reminiscent of a green curry. If you’d compared your first bite to your last, you’d think you’d dipped your spoon into two different bowls, both completely (but distinctively) delicious.
We didn’t need the peanut butter and chocolate opera cake for dessert, which would have been decadent even at half its size. We should have had more faith in the “petite brownie a la mode,” whose throwaway price of $3 suggested a mere mignardise. It’s actually an idea every restaurant should copy: a true half-dessert portion — yet big enough for two people to share without feeling shorted. We opted to swap out the scoop of vanilla for a pitch-perfect housemade ginger ice cream.
Which points toward one of the most winning qualities of a restaurant filled with them. Even though it remains, in my book, a special-occasion kind of a place — with entrees that cross the $30 line — Vernick remains accessible in a way that too many of Philly’s other top restaurants don’t. You don’t have to commit to a full tasting menu. You can actually get a table without planning weeks ahead. If all you want is a piece of toast while you sip on a dynamite Blood and Sand variation, you’ll feel as welcome as the couple down the bar sawing into a $68 strip loin for two.
And in the birthplace of American democracy, accessibility should matter when we talk about our city’s absolute best places to eat. If there were any restaurant where I’d want to someday become and actual regular, Vernick would be tough to beat.
Vernick Food + Drink [f8b8z]