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Vernick Food & Drink still Philadelphia's best overall restaurant

Craig LaBan, Food Critic

Updated: Saturday, December 9, 2017, 8:43 PM

Greg Vernick at Vernick Food & Drink.

It may seem odd that Philadelphia’s best overall restaurant, Vernick Food & Drink, is such a challenge to define.

Vernick, isn’t that the “toast place”? Yes, but it’s also that wood-fired kitchen, the restaurant with the seasonally inspired cocktail bar and smart wines, a shrine to ultimate roast chicken, a crudo counter where creamy plumes of briny uni levitate over whipped yogurt clouds and a silken custard of warm eggs scrambled with brandied shrimp butter. Best blueberry pie for two ever? Yes, yes, yes.

But the fact that Vernick is so many things — and does so many, all to perfection — is a testament to its daunting achievement. It is still Philadelphia’s best overall restaurant. And that is why last year, after almost five years in business, Vernick rose to a four-bell rating, because it has helped redefine what American dining can be: effortlessly diverse and seasonal, with a bustling bi-level Rittenhouse space that feels like a special occasion without tablecloths, and a menu I’d happily revisit every week — if only I could get a table.

With subsequent acknowledgment this spring of owner Greg Vernick as the “Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic” by the James Beard Foundation, it’s clear his national reputation is soaring, too. So the reservation game won’t get any easier.

The magic comes from the polished staff and from Vernick himself, the Cherry Hill-born chef, who, after years of working for Jean-Georges Vongerichten, crafts dishes that appear simple but that rise on flawless technique to create focused flavors with powerful impact. That chicken isn’t just chicken. It’s brined, steamed, reinjected with its juices, then wood-roasted into a crackly skinned spirit bird. An oceanic gloss of dashi butter umami-boosts perfect roasted lobster alongside blistered shishitos, corn, and green-chili sausage.

The toast temptation is understandable, with toppings from creamy peas and crisp bacon to chanterelles over charred eggplant puree, or lemony lump crab sparked by pickled peppers. A recent toast of broccoli over bacon jam beneath a snow of shaved Vermont cheese was like a broccoli-cheddar soup, divinely deconstructed.

But be careful. There is so much else here to explore, from the crudo (try the stellar striped jack ringed by jalapeño oil, or the fluke in house ponzu) to a warm Parmesan custard topped with fried baby artichokes. A checkerboard of diced ruby tuna and charred bread is drizzled with liquid foie gras. Cool watermelon cubes stacked with warm lamb bacon nubs bring blasts of sweet juice and savory smoke.

A recent crudo of hiramasa curled around warm plugs of perfect sushi rice, soy-pickled beech mushrooms, and shiso oil made me wonder if there wasn’t a genre he hadn’t mastered. An extraordinarily tender Cervena venison au poivre that came next with a beguiling mole negro pushed that notion in yet another direction, toward Mexico. Meanwhile, we resisted the chicken (for once) in favor of a whole fish for the table. An epic turbot appeared — nearly three pounds of it! — dusted in flour and bronzed beneath an amandine hale of capers, nuts and brown butter lightened with fish stock that reaffirmed Vernick’s strong French roots.

The pastas here are fantastic, too, no surprise, from sweet-pea ravioli with rabbit to ribbons blackened with squid ink and wrapped around rock shrimp. Oh, and that big pork chop Milanese whose crust is piqued with smoked paprika? Yeah. Awesome. Of course.

Really, with every dish on this big menu honed to such precise beauty, what more could I desire? Just a table, ASAP.

Craig LaBan, Food Critic

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