What can you do with a piece of toast?
There are few ingredients more elemental. But for Gregory Vernick, a slice of sourdough from Metropolitan Bakery lightly grilled over hot lava rocks is the ultimate canvas, an invitation to capture a season or a whimsy, and a crunchy window into this young chef's soul.
Seasoned with olive oil and touched with just the right golden tint of char, these half-inch-thick slices are irresistibly springy pedestals for an array of clever toppings. A thick layer of fresh and woodsy morels is brightened with a glaze of Meyer lemon cream. A generous blend of moist Maryland and peekytoe crab, a pairing both sweet and briny, is perked with the spicy tang of pickled chiles. The sweet pop of white corn and crunchy scallions becomes dusky over a smear of smoked chile aioli. Luscious beef tartare, tossed with a tiny dice of chewy Parmesan, sparkles beneath snowy flakes of fresh-shaved horseradish. Sheer ribbons of house-cured bacon are torched crisp and crinkly atop a vibrant green cream of pureed peas and mint.
At Vernick's eponymous new restaurant off Rittenhouse Square, there are numerous other wood-roasted delights to explore. But if you start with a Tour de Toasts, you'll get both a sure sense of Vernick's appealingly straightforward aesthetic - as notable for simple, striking combinations as for its vivid flavors - and potentially make a meal. After the toast draped with wilted zucchini blossoms and piquant boquerones anchovies, a grilled bread smeared with creamy housemade fromage blanc, sweet onion marmalade, and juicy pickled cherries is the perfect sweet reply.
Yes, all those carbs are filling, but you'll want to save room. Because there are so many other hits on this broad menu of both small and large sharing plates - from riffs on raw fish to hefty wood-roasted chops - I'm convinced Vernick Food & Drink is one of the year's most exciting new restaurants.
That's saying a lot considering the bumper crop of young talent that has debuted in town in 2012 - the best in recent memory. But Vernick is a complete package, with its cozy yet modern space in the bilevel former bookstore off Rittenhouse Square (all earth tones, balcony windows, and bare maple tables in the upstairs dining room; plenty of lively chef action from the counter seats downstairs along the open kitchen in back) and a smart program of drinks poured from the sleek and intimate first-floor bar, and the talented Vernick himself.
The 31-year-old Cherry Hill native has come a long way from his Jersey Boy roots, scooping water ice in the Margate cafe beside Lucy the Elephant and hanging out in his mother's eatery (the unfortunately named Haddonfield Diet Restaurant). Training at both Boston University and the Culinary Institute of America landed him spots in some of America's best restaurants - Clio in Boston, the early days of Per Se, and the universe of Jean-Georges Vongerichten, where he spent five years, both at the flagship and opening new concepts around the world.
He learned something from the master. The flexible menu here is relevant to how people eat now, built to suit a full range of dining needs, whether the occasion is craft cocktails and a nibble, or an all-out feast. The mood is casual but crisp, the service both welcoming and refined.
The food, meanwhile, is serious but approachable, and clearly influenced by the Vongerichten signature - a refined simplicity with just a few striking elements on a plate informed by worldly flavors and perfect technique. Vernick elevates common tuna sashimi with the tingly crunch of yuzu-pickled Asian pears and a painted ribbon of gingered creme fraiche on the plate. Raw chunks of deep orange Arctic char take on a musky luster of hot chile oil and the startling crunch of deep-fried fish-skin "chicharrones." Creamy orange scoops of sea urchin perch atop a cool cloud of whipped yogurt, melting into a bowl of barely set eggs shirred in shrimp butter.
Even more memorable was the perfectly steamed halibut, a brick of pristine white over the forest-brown collage of wild mushrooms in broth, a contrast so pure it was stunning.
More purely vegetable-focused dishes, like the salad pairing sweet wood-roasted carrots with crunchy ribbons of shaved raw ones, or the heirloom tomatoes glazed green in basil vinaigrette, or the crunchy potatoes with flash-fried shishito peppers, show a gift for amplifying natural flavors.
Vernick sets the bar so high, it's surprising when an occasional dish doesn't sing. Our fresh mozzarella was a bit too bouncy, considering it's pulled fresh twice each night before being paired with sweet-tart rhubarb jam. Or perhaps it was just brought a bit too late in our meal to be more than a chilled afterthought amid the bigger hot plates - one of the rare hiccups from a well-prepared service staff that had the otherwise complicated plate lineup smoothly paced.
One letdown that was hard to ignore, unfortunately, was an expensive whole dorade from the small list of large-format "simply roasted" sharing dishes. The two-pound fish itself was fine, its belly stuffed with shaved fennel and orange. But in the end, it was simply a bit dull compared to the smaller compositions. A grilled black bass fillet over broccoli stewed with tomatoes and cerignola olives was far more satisfying. So were the elegant pastas - a nest of tender whole wheat fettuccine twirled over asparagus-pistachio pesto; and ravioli filled with mashed potatoes, like elegant pierogi, tossed with bread crumbs and soft morsels of braised lamb neck.
A notably juicy pork blade steak, marinated in soy and herbs, and crisp-edged from the cast-iron pan, was fanned over snappy almonds and mustard greens, whose spiciness was tempered by sweet-and-sour red onion jam. The huge bone-in strip loin redeemed the "simply roasted" plates. At $68, it was by far the most expensive item on a menu that, for the most part, focuses on smaller plates around $15 or less and individual entrees in the mid-$20s. But its 28 ounces of four-week dry-aged beef were able to sustain our table's attention far better than the dorade, anchoring at least two or three carnivores' meals with an incredibly rich savor sopped in brown-butter pan sauce over lemony charred lettuce and fried shishito peppers.
Gregory Vernick, it turns out, isn't the only new talent making a mark at his new restaurant. Pastry chef Angela Ranalli is a name sweets-hunters should note, in part because of her obsession with olive oil desserts. It's a natural fit at the Italian-themed Le Virtù, where Ranalli, who splits her time, also crafts desserts. At the more American-minded Vernick, though, she also substitutes Abruzzese olive oil for butter in an orangey pound cake that gets grilled (like toast) beneath wood-roasted peaches, as well as in a moist carrot cake glazed in creamy cheese frosting and crunchy dehydrated crumbs.
Her great contribution to the local dessert scene, though, is undoubtedly the blueberry pie for two, a truly buttery, double-crusted gift of sweet seasonal fruit, served with a scoop of vanilla gelato on the side. It's a homespun classic offered with sharing in mind, and, like those toasts, revamped with a style that may be impossible to resist.
Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682, email@example.com, or follow on Twitter @CraigLaBan.