In a city of dining riches, Vernick has reinvented the new American restaurant

Greg Vernick of Vernick Food & Drink is Craig LaBan's chef of the year.

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 them all to perfection — is a testament to its daunting achievement. After almost five years in business, it has risen to a four-bell rating because it has helped redefine what American dining can be: effortlessly diverse and seasonal, with a bustling bilevel 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.

The magic comes from the polished staff and from Greg Vernick, the Cherry Hill-born owner and 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 super bird. A sea-flavored 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.

But be careful.

There is so much else here to explore, from the crudo (try the stellar striped jack ringed by jalapeño oil) 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.

Vernick’s pastas 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 another reservation, ASAP.


Vernick Food & Drink

2031 Walnut St., Philadelphia; 267-639-6644, www.vernickphilly.com.

Cherry Hill native Gregory Vernick has returned from the Jean-Georges Vongerichten universe to open one of Philly's best new places of 2011, a modern bilevel space off Rittenhouse Square where wood-fired seasonal ingredients emerge in appealingly simple yet refined combinations. The flexible menu has small and large plates for sharing, but Vernick does things with toast you won't forget. The ground-floor bar is great for solo dining and sharp cocktails, not to mention quieter than the upstairs dining room.

MENU HIGHLIGHTS

Toasts (fromage blanc and cherries; peas and bacon; crab; morels; beef tartare; corn and smoked chile); tuna with spicy pickles; sea urchin with scrambled eggs; Arctic char with crispy skin; whole-wheat fettuccine with asparagus pesto; potato ravioli with braised lamb; black bass; halibut with mushrooms; bone-in strip loin (for two); olive oil cake; blueberry pie. Entrees, $22-$26. (Sharing entrees, $38-$68.)

DRINKS

Compact but well-rounded program. There are 14 good wines by the glass (plus dessert options), mostly European, with intriguing choices like Berger grüner veltliner, a floral dry Hungarian furmint (Evolúció), and a 2003 red Rhône (Le Roussignac from Chateau Haut-Musiel) perfect for the big steak. The 52-bottle list offers a handful for $50 or less (Sartori Ferdi; Domaine Magellan), plus other notable labels at standard markups (Noblaie Chinon; Far Niente; Chehalem) and a 2005 Cubillo Crianza from R. López de Heredia worth a splurge. The craft beer list is small but worthwhile. The mix of classic and inventive cocktails is also excellent.

IF YOU GO

Dinner Tuesday-Sunday, 5-11 p.m. Bar 4:30 p.m.-1 a.m.

Wheelchair accessible.

Street and lot only.