July 18, 2014

Why Vernick has the Friendliest Chef's Counter in Philadelphia

A recent dinner had Vernick Food & Drink hit us with the ultimate restaurant hat trick: excellent food from first bite to last, outstanding service and notably generous wine pours. All that and a last minute seat at the chef's counter? Everybody wins.

View from the chef's counter and our grilled romaine
Reservations at Vernick, located on Walnut St. in the Rittenhouse neighborhood, are highly recommended - we made ours several weeks in advance for a birthday, but didn't call until the day of to ask for chef's counter seats. We were surprised to see the counter wasn't packed all night, maybe people don't realize it's there? Or are we the outliers who enjoy it over a regular table?

Either way, it was a great experience watching the small army of cooks prepare almost everything served that night. Edward, who was on fish duty, introduced himself right away and was willing to answer questions or toss us fun facts throughout the evening.

We usually aren't too picky about service but Vernick's staff was extremely attentive and friendly, very knowledgeable on food and wine, keenly aware of how to portion out our over-sized order, and never more than a half step away to address any need.  It was the best service we've had in a long time, with possible exception of The Four Seasons.

I'm tackling this review out of order because I simply cannot bury the steamed Atlantic cod entree down at the bottom of a post. It was, no joke, out of this world. The fish itself was cooked perfectly but the lemongrass broth under it was akin to any pasta sauce that you'd want to soak up every last drop of with bread. Or slurp up with a spoon. Hell, if it wasn't a classy place we'd go ramen-style on that bowl of broth and toss it back with bare hands. And to think the sea bass is a more popular order? Can't imagine how good that must be.

Atlantic cod and shrimp dumplings in lemongrass broth

The organic Amish chicken entree was also excellent - extremely juicy and flavorful, covered by skin cooked to a perfect crisp. It's nice to have the option of a whole or half portion so you can really dive into multiple cuts of meat and share it with your companion. 

Organic Amish chicken

Ok back to the beginning of our meal... per usual, we ordered a fairly large number of dishes. But we were still treated to an off-menu hamachi starter. That night it was a fish called trevino from New Zealand. Excellent bite to kick off the meal. Vernick also provided a tiny aperitif of raspberry gazpacho with a to-die-for mini cheese puff on the side.

Our adventurous choice for the night was the sea urchin. It seems to be the favorite dish of big TV names like Anthony Bourdain, but we weren't all that enthralled. The raw fish was prepared beautifully on top of a lightly scrambled egg and whipped topping. The sea urchin itself was too briney for our taste, though - something to try for more venturesome eaters but maybe not for the texture-adverse.

One of Vernick's claims to fame is their "on toast" menu. The fromage blanc was a hefty serving of creamy house-made white cheese served on thick toast with cherries and herbs. Outstanding. It was amazing how much the cherries added to each bite.

Sea urchin over scrambled eggs
House-made fromage blanc and cherries on toast

The arctic char small plate was a nice light, summery option with a hint of citrus, dill and a chili oil base. We didn't order the chili-glazed octopus, though after observing it exit the kitchen non-stop, Edward confirmed that it's one of the most popular dishes. We were pleased with the arctic char and it made for a great photo.

Arctic char

Egg fettuccine with peas
As noted in an earlier post, we're also on a grilled salad kick, and the grilled romaine with figs at Vernick did not disappoint. Edward noted that putting olive oil and a little salt on the grill will help it grill better, for you DIYers reading this.

The least interesting dish of the night was the egg fettuccine with spring onions, peas and morels. Pretty but the peas didn't really fit the dish.

So there you have it. A pretty epic dining experience all around and we won't hesitate to go back. Good news is that if you drop in, maybe the chef's counter will have some openings. Otherwise, grab a reservation soon and prepare for a great meal.

July 13, 2014

What We're Drinking: The Derringer at Rival Bros.

Need a caffeine kick that is: 1) not a regular cup of coffee, 2) more than a simple shot of espresso and 3) comes without the overwhelming milkiness of a latte or cappuccino?

The folks at Rival Bros. have just the solution – the Derringer, a take on the ever-popular cortado

The cortado is typically 4 oz of equal parts espresso and steamed milk that ends up being a cross between a macchiato and a cappuccino. The Derringer twist upps the milk just a bit to a ratio of 2:2.5 (maybe 3 according to the barista).

I find it to be the perfect little drink to pack in a needed caffeine kick without giving me the shakes. A touch of milk also tames the bite of the espresso (cortado is Spanish for cut) without diminishing the flavor.

Get yourself over to Rival Bros. coffee shop at 24th & Lombard and jump on the Derringer wagon. I've probably had it the last ten Friday mornings in a row.

Rival Bros. blends can also be purchased at a number of retail stores and sipped in restaurants throughout Philadelphia region.

July 4, 2014

6 Steps to Make a 3 Hour Wait for BBQ Worth It

What "order everything looks like"
"You waited in line for 3.5 hours to get barbecue?!" Yes. "Was it worth it?" is obviously the most common follow up question to my tales of a recent trip to Austin, Texas. Yes it was, I reply, if you follow these six steps:

1. Get on a plane and go to Austin, Texas.
2. Stock up on non-food tailgating necessities (beer, water, sunblock, friends, etc.)
3. Arrive at Franklin Barbecue no later than 8:00 a.m.
4. Make new friends with other people in line.
5. Order everything on the menu once you get in.
6. Eat as much as you possibly can.

There you have it. Six simple steps to maximize your excursion to Franklin Barbecue. In truth, is anything really worth that wait? I don't know, but when you combine the best barbecue I've ever had, a friendly atmosphere and fun people in line, the result is a truly memorable food experience. It's like a Penn State tailgate for barbecue.

The Line.

A few words about waiting in line at Franklin Barbecue before we get to the massive of amounts of food consumed. Franklin Barbecue does not open until 11:00 a.m. and only sells what they make that day. That's why the line starts to form before 8. Get there early in order to guarantee you get food at all. (cont'd below)

While waiting, go around back to see the smokers. These old sheds are being replaced this summer. 
Secret shot inside the kitchen, though most work is done outside at the smokers.
A quick online search shows some people suggest arriving before 8:30 or 9, while others suggest closer to 8 on weekends. When you are already waiting three hours, what difference does another 30 minutes make? I’d arrive closer to 8. I was number 22 to arrive on a Friday and the line was easily 75 deep by 8:30.

Bring water, beer if you want, reading materials, etc. (they sell beer/water, too). There's a guy renting lawn chairs for $5 so you don't have to stand. The bathrooms are also open for use all morning. I snuck a picture of the kitchen while I was waiting in the bathroom line, before being told never to do that again (oops).

Most importantly, talk to people! They come from all over and you're there together for the same purpose: creating a memorable food experience. Never know what crazy stories will ensue over three hours.

The Food.

Franklin Barbecue's menu lists everything by the pound, but you can order less or more if you want. I went with 1 lb brisket, 1/2 lb each of ribs, sausage and pulled pork, plus the Tipsy Texan sandwich - a brisket/sausage sandwich and a 2013 Chowzter Award winner. I had a co-worker with me who is a light eater. So yes, that was an insane amount of food to order for basically one person but who knows when I'll ever get back.

The brisket and ribs were stunningly good, easily outshining the sausage and pulled pork. The smokey brisket was like nothing I've ever had and literally melted in my mouth, especially the fattier pieces. The ribs fell off the bone and the outside pepper ring was a real kicker. Trust me, the three kinds of barbecue sauces available are not needed.


The Tipsy Texan is a mountain of a sandwich so the fun challenge is to devour it without making a mess. The best strategy is to grab it with both hands, squeeze it together and just chomp away as quickly as you can. The sausage-on-brisket combo mixes well as the flavors are different enough to taste throughout. The coleslaw and pickles add a final touch that cuts through all the fat. Just a perfect sandwich that actually had me tipsy with a meat stupor by the end.

The Tipsy Texan

Bonus photos:

(left) Ribs. (center) part of the line outside Franklin Barbecue. (right) How to stuff a Tipsy Texan in your mouth.

June 25, 2014

Good Stuff Eatery Brings More Great Burgers and a Celebrity Chef to Philly

Good Stuff Eatery opened yesterday on 18th St. between Chestnut & Sansom. It's the latest in a fast casual burger craze that has swept the U.S. over the past few years. Good Stuff comes to Philly with pretty big street cred - celebrity chef Spike Mendelsohn (Top Chef, Iron Chef, etc.) is behind it and has already captured the D.C. market. We had Good Stuff burgers a few years ago in D.C. and loved them so this Philly opening came with much anticipation. 

Details on the burgers below, and for lots more photos of opening day, check out our Facebook album.

The place was packed right away but seemed to keep people moving quickly. I was fortunate enough to enter an hour early and chat with Chef Spike. The most interesting part was actually witnessing the scene one hour before a grand opening - contractors screwing in last minute fixtures, gigantic crates of potato rolls being carted around, rugs still being rolled out, stuff literally everywhere. But it all came together in time for a nice ribbon cutting and celebration with the Mendelsohn family and Philly owners, George & Elaine. 

June 18, 2014

Friday Food Photos: Four Summer Picks

Ok, summer, we get it! You start tomorrow!! Now that it feels like it's gone from -12 degrees to 95 degrees in no time, here are four quick dishes to consider this summer in Philadelphia. 

High Street on Market, next door to and run by the same folks as Fork, serves up a few different egg sandwiches weekday mornings and weekends all day. Get over your summer nights hangover with this, the Pastrami & Hash ($9.50) with shaved pastrami, spiced hash, roasted peppers & onions, farm egg and Russian dressing on delicious homemade bread. Just ask for extra napkins, because it's messy. Also try the Hickory Town with Lancaster bologna, farm egg, Amish horseradish cheddar, gherkin mayo and fried red onions, which we have to get next time.

Obviously this sandwich was amazing. I mean, just look at it.