Chester and I were in a bookstore yesterday, browsing through a cookbook that featured recipes from notable chefs. All of the usual suspects–Mario Batali, Eric Ripert, Wolfgang Puck–appeared on the list. We noticed that they hailed mostly from California and New York and commented that people really need to start paying more attention to Philly. While some of the chefs in town may not be “names” in the same way that these three guys are, it’s no secret to those of us who live here that you don’t need to travel very far for high-quality, inventive food.
One such place where this is the case it Vernick, which recently took up residence in an old brownstone in the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood. We visited last Saturday night for a belated Valentine’s Day dinner. At around 9 p.m., the bar area just inside the entrance was absolutely packed with people. So, I was relieved when we were shown to our table in the much quieter, back section of the restaurant, facing the open kitchen.
Vernick features a regularly changing menu of snacks, small plates and family-style entrees. Dishes are familiar and simple, but incorporate just the right balance of ingredients in each dish, resulting in complex and interesting flavors.
Our meal started with two complimentary amuse-bouches. The first, was a thimble sized serving of of mushroom soup, It didn’t have the fattiness of a typical mushroom soup, so I’m guessing it was made with minimal cream, which allowed the earthy flavor of the mushrooms to really shine through. The second was a tuna tartare with just a hint of sesame oil.
For our first course, Chester and I shared a selection from the “on toast” section of the menu. Creamy pumpkin puree was topped with crunchy pumpkin seeds, shallots and a drizzle of brown butter. The brown butter flavor was spot on–toasty, without being burnt–and the puree had just a little bit of sweetness to it. They should sell it in little jars to take home, because it would make a great spread for toast at breakfast.
For my remaining dishes, I chose two small plate items. First, was the grilled romaine salad. Sweet figs, bits of sharp white cheddar and a tangy dressing melted a bit over the warm greens made for a twist on the traditional Caesar salad. Next were the ravioli, filled with a potato puree (kind of like a pierogi) and topped with bits of tender braised lamb, topped with crunchy herbed bread crumbs. Normally, lamb and potatoes can be such a heavy meal, but this presentation had just the right amount of food for me. It helped that the pasta was very light.
Chester, meanwhile, opted for the roasted brussel sprouts served over julienned green apples and simply dressed in a olive oil and lemon juice to start. The dish was served as a cold salad, which helped the apples and the sprouts maintain a their crunchy textures. His entree was a generous portion of braised veal osso bucco, served with sweet carrots and mashed potatoes. The meat only needed a little bit of encouragement with a fork and it fell right apart.
We enjoyed all of our dishes and there was plenty of food from each to share. The only thing that was a drawback was that a few of them were a little heavy on the salt. It wasn’t to the point where the salt overwhelmed other ingredients and flavors in the dishes, but it was definitely noticeable; particularly as it was sea salt so you got a crunchy bite of it every so often. We don’t cook with a lot of salt at home, so we might notice this more than most people do when we are out to dinner.
For our final course, we went with one of our servers recommendations–the chocolate banana custard. I expected this to be similar to a pudding, but it was instead we were presented with a rectangular slab of chocolate, with a dense texture was a cross between fudge from the Jersey shore and a flourless chocolate cake. The banana flavor was subtle and paired surprisingly well with a slightly spicy caramel sauce. The only disappointing element of the dish was the small scoop of ice cream, which had a weak, unremarkable flavor–somewhere between vanilla and plain old milk–and icy texture.
Dishes at Vernick range from $5 (for snack-sized plates) to $26 (for entrees). I’ve seen some reviews online that are critical of these prices. However, I thought portions were very generous and priced appropriately for the neighborhood. The menu is very flexible, in that small plates could easily be shared between two people and the larger entrees could satisfy two to three people. So, if you make your selections wisely (ask for your server’s advice. I thought ours was realistic about the portion sizes), it is possible not to break the bank for dinner at Vernick.
Vernick was just announced as a semi-finalist for a James Beard Award in the best new restaurant category and I’m definitely rooting for it to win!