Long before opening the best new restaurant in Philadelphia, Vernick Food & Drink, Greg Vernick was a boy in Cherry Hill. “My mom owned a restaurant in Haddonfield,” he says. “The bus stopped right in front of it, and I’d go there after school. That’s where my childhood took place.”
Vernick went to college in Boston for front-of-the-house education, then to the Culinary Institute of America for back. He cooked at New York’s Per Se for not quite a year before joining Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s team, first at Perry Street in the West Village, then at the eponymous Jean Georges on Central Park, where he worked his way up to sous chef. When Vongerichten wanted to do a restaurant in Vancouver, the megawatt chef tapped Vernick to open it.
“When I got back to New York, they had filled my job as a sous,” Vernick says. “They told me, ‘We want you to go back out on the road and open up more restaurants for us. The next job is the Middle East.’”
This is how Vernick found himself in Doha and Dubai and Tokyo — his girlfriend, now wife, Julie, along for the ride. “I traveled 125 days that year, opened eight or nine restaurants” — but he’s not bragging. “Coming back to Philly was always the goal. My family is here, I was born here, we want to start a family here.”
Lucky us. An iridescent red anthill of tuna tartare, the amuse bouche one night at Vernick, cemented my gratitude. At face, there was nothing revolutionary about the glistening bite, except perhaps how it came to be: “Each night, every cook at every station has a chance to invent an amuse before staff meal,” Vernick explains. “At 4:30, they present with their version and [the best one] will turn up at the tables.”
Love that. This amuse was his sous chef’s handiwork, composed of ingredients that are hardly out-there: quality yellowfin, minced fine; lime zest, sour and perfumed; salt; and a sliver of finger chili pickled in a mellow Champagne vinegar brine. But the calibration of the flavors was that of a Ferrari engine, precise and thrilling. Yeah, it was gonna to be a good meal.
I wasn’t disappointed, my contentment fostered by the food, at once staggeringly simple (house-made mozzarella ...) and thoroughly creative (… adorned with gems of poached rhubarb jam, more pickled finger chilies, Maldon sea salt and an aggressive, throat-tingling olive oil standing in for pepper). Vernick knows what he’s doing, and he’s got allies in his bright staff and the early summer breeze sending soft ripples across the surface of my opaque, pink neo-Negroni shaken with egg white. The coquettish weather flirted all night long in the second-story dining room — a terrace, really, when the Walnut-facing windows fold open to the street.
Down below, the chefs in the open kitchen (open, but hidden, through a corridor behind the concrete, U-shaped bar) sent up success after success. Metropolitan sourdough, cut thick like a lumberjack might slice his morning bread and charred well on a grill whose lava rocks mimic cult Japanese charcoal bintochan, form the foundation for the menu’s trendy selection of “toasts.” Their mere presence might be faddish, but there’s nothing fleeting about the true, earnest flavors I discovered in their toppings: creamy steamed morels painted with Meyer-lemon glaze; fat, pickled cherries bleeding onto fromage blanc; beef tenderloin tartare so silky I’m tempted to invoke the often ill-advised “mouthfeel” — e.g., the mouthfeel of this tartare is off the fucking chain. And in each bite, a heartbeat of smoke and crunch, the sturdy framework that supports all the other flavors and asks for none of the glory. Sorry to blow up your spot, humble bread.
Less deferential is the vainglorious uni-and-eggs appetizer, the one everyone’s talking about, the one quickly becoming the signature dish at Vernick. Unapologetically rich, umami loiters in every corner of the curvaceous white bowls in which these soft, creamy eggs and raw sea-urchin roe are heaped. A faint marine flavor echoed through, hypnotic; it’s the eggs more than the uni, shirred with shrimp-shell butter. I’d mention mouthfeel again had I not already spent my yearly allowance.
I didn’t love a bowl of baby artichokes steamed and sauced in sun-dried-tomato vinaigrette (uncharacteristically underseasoned) or a special featuring whole grilled shad roe sack with bacon and a weak carrot rémoulade, but against the triumphs that preceded and followed, they were quickly dismissed. Roasted in the wood-burning oven, a whole dorade swam right into the winner’s circle, its uncommon soft skeleton allowing the chefs to debone while leaving the head-to-tail look intact, a cool trick. Charred gem lettuce, blistered shishito peppers and butts of fresh lemon and lime surrounded the beautifully cooked fish; they not only made delicious complements — I loved the citrus cousins, mutually exclusive in most cuisines, reunited and Vernick’s ballsiness to just fucking put them there on the plate, man — but together possessed a je ne sais quoi that felt so strongly, uniquely American to me.
With Le Virtù pastry chef Angela Ranalli — “I begged them to have her” — on desserts, you know the finish is going to be strong. Gooey blueberries flowed from a pie-dough crumble in one, staining dreamy vanilla gelato capped with bright lemon curd. Roasted peaches fruited up another, a grilled olive-oil cake that felt right in Ranalli’s sweet-savory Italian wheelhouse. If there’s a criticism of the desserts, it’s that they’re a bit oversized. Split them and direct the savings to the smart wine list (home to not one but three rosés by the glass), and join me in welcoming Greg Vernick — finally — home.
2031 Walnut St., 267-639-6644, vernickphilly.com. Dinner served nightly 5-11 p.m.; bar open nightly 4:30 p.m.-1 a.m. Appetizers, $6-$15; entrées, $22-$34; desserts, $6-$9.