Archives for February 2013

Restaurant Review: Vernick

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.

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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!

The Friday Five: Valentine’s Day Treats

One of the things that I like about Valentine’s Day is that it gives me an excuse to overdose on chocolate, the color pink and general cuteness. Three of my favorite all time favorite things.

I usually make some kind of sweet treat for the ocassion and these are just a few things that have made it on to my short list for this year:

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Sweetheart Shortbread (via Diamonds for Dessert) The recipe yields a few dozen colorful cookies, so these would be perfect for stuffing into little cellophane treat bags for all of your Valentines.

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Raspberry Lemon Whoopie Pies (via Martha Stewart) These would look gorgeous on a pretty serving platter for a Valentine’s day dessert buffet.

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Sprinkled Strawberry Coconut Scones (via How Sweet It Is) For a festive breakfast in bed.

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Conversation Heart Cake (via Studio DIY) I know they are a tradition, but conversation heart candies are disgusting. A conversation heart that tastes like cake? Now that I can get behind!

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Nutella Espresso Cheesecake (via Baker Street) I’ll choose chocolate over any other type of dessert, any day of the week, and this seems like a super indulgent Valentine’s Day treat (plus, it was National Nutella Day a few days ago!).

What are your V-Day plans?

Restaurant Week Round-up

Food is pretty much the only thing that makes winter bearable, so it’s helpful that Center City District schedules one of its twice-yearly Restaurant Weeks for late January/early February. I hit three different spots for this season’s festivities, all of which are definitely worth a visit at any time of the year.

Russet

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The very name of this restaurant conjures expectations of simple, comforting foods and that’s exactly what Chester and I found on the menu for dinner on a chilly Friday evening.

A relatively new addition to the city’s BYO scene, Russet features farm-to-table dishes with French and Italian twists. It’s location in an old brownstone on Spruce Street, outfitted by the owners (a husband and wife team) with vintage tchotchkes and furniture and tables made of recycled wood, adds to the homey feel. There is a lot of attention to detail given to the menu, right down to rustic, fresh baked breads (lemon-oatmeal on the night we visited) and house made sodas.

Some of the highlights from our visit included melt-in-your-mouth gnocchi with crispy pancetta and a sweet gorgonzola sauce, halibut in a buttery saffron sauce and a rich, chocolate budino with tart cranberries. However, the menu changes daily to take advantage of local, seasonal ingredients, so you might find different options when you go. Featured ingredients and daily menus are posted on the restaurant’s website so that you can get an idea of what to expect.

Lacroix

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A group of co-workers and I took advantage of the $20 lunch menu at this swanky French restaurant in the Rittenhouse Hotel. This is probably one of the best deals around for Restaurant Week, as I imagine that lunch on a normal day would probably set you back a bit more.

The restaurant was featuring a handful of dishes from their regular menu, including two kinds of salads, a soup, duck, pasta and scallops. I can vouch for the Caesar salad, (which was one of the prettiest that I have ever had), with grilled Romaine, bits of preserved lemon and a paper thin Parmesan cracker as well as the light-as-air hand-rolled tagliatelle pasta, topped with poached egg and a generous helping of earthy truffles. A trio of miniature desserts, including a cinnamon cream puff, blueberry tart and chocolate mango cake were the perfect finish to the meal.

Bistro 7

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I hadn’t even heard of this French BYOB in Old City before Chester and our friends Matt and Lara decided to try it out on a Friday night double date. The elegant and simple ambience and the food made this one of the best restaurants that I’ve tried in awhile.

Gnocchi seems to be a popular appetizer at the moment. Bistro 7‘s version was served in a sage brown butter sauce and topped with bits of crispy shallots and tender butternut squash. The gnocchi were light and delicious and the ingredients were perfect for the winter time, but the dish was just a little bit too salty for my taste. The short rib entree, on the other hand, was just perfect. The two generous pieces of beef braised in red wine and rosemary came apart easily with a fork. I also really enjoyed Chester’s lamb tagine. The meat was seasoned with a perfect combination of flavors, including cinnamon and nutmeg.

Many people complain that menus and service can be hit-or-miss during Restaurant Week. But, in doing my research, it seemed that most restaurants were offering really interesting menus this time around (i.e dishes directly from or similar to their everyday menus so that you could really get a taste of what the restaurant was all about) and the service and experience at all of the places I visited was top notch. Hopefully, restaurants have discovered that many people, like me, use Restaurant Week to discover new favorite places and this trend will continue in the future.

While Center City Restaurant Week is over, I was excited to learn that East Passyunk Avenue is set to host its first Restaurant Week from February 24 through March 2. This neighborhood has become a restaurant mecca and many of the old favorites and new hot spots are participating, with menus ranging from $15 to $35. Make your reservations as soon as you can; since some of these venues are tiny, tables are sure to be snapped up quickly!