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.

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