Some chefs rocket to the top when they’re young. Others rattle around for a while, following mentors and biding their time, soaking in what wisdom they can while taking deep breaths, sometimes for decades, before finally taking the ownership plunge.
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Scott Morozin, already going silver at 40, is among the latter. But don’t hold that against him.
I needed only look down from atop what I’m calling the Tower of Chicken Power at his Verbena BYOB in Kennett Square to know the man can cook. This epic pedestal of poultry, a juicy cylinder of white meat stuffed with mushrooms and wrapped in a tawny sheet of bronzed skin, is a tribute to both old-school techniques (the deboning roulade wizardry of a galantine) and modernist tricks (a little meat glue goes a long way). But most important, it tastes delicious, perched over slow-cooked leeks stuffed with truffled cheese and a puddle of classic mustard wine jus.
The rest of that whole bird from Senat Poultry in North Jersey makes other cameos. The neck, feet, and wings head toward the stock pot to enhance the sauces, like that jus; the leg meat gets salt-cured overnight with coriander, fennel, and cloves, and is then ground into a beguiling Bolognese. It’s served over yolk-rich strands of house fettuccine beneath a scoop of saffron mascarpone and a bending black sheet of “paper” made from pureed kalamatas that rips apart like a piquant fruit leather and completes one of a few notable signatures here — an original twist on a familiar dish that manages to be both flavorful and light.
I remember being similarly impressed a couple of years ago by some juniper-crisped softshells and a soy-basted duck breast at Sola in Bryn Mawr, Morozin’s previous post, which is where I first heard his name. Little did I know then that Morozin, like so many other unnamed sous-chefs, had cooked for me dozens of times before. At Roux 3 and Tangerine during his years under chef Jay Caputo (“He never took it easy on me, and I appreciate that,” Morozin says.) At Gayle, Rae, MidAtlantic, and R2L, when he cooked alongside Daniel Stern (“I’ve never seen such dexterity on the line — he’s like an alien.”). And stints at Yardley’s Canal Street Grille and Chad Rosenthal’s Lucky Well in Ambler and …
“It’s a cook’s life,” Morozin said. “Either you bounce around or you get bounced around — and neither one of them are bad.”
I’m glad he’s gotten the chance to finally begin to realize his own vision at this 36-seater in Kennett Square, the former La Madera Bistro space whose rustic wood-plank walls are accented with live plant hangings and freshly painted colors of avocado and shiitake (because Kennett Square, of course, is mushroom-ville). He’s also found a warm dining room staff that might lack some polish, with the maddening habit of clearing dishes (and sometimes even wineglasses) while people are still eating and sipping but that can hardly contain its enthusiasm.
“All our ingredients are local! Our fish is better than sushi-grade! Also, have you had ‘tree water’ yet? It’s the purest water on earth!” said one server, hard-selling the bottles of sparkling Asarasi water extracted from the sap of sugar maples.
The water was a genuine curiosity — crisply effervescent, dry, and certified organic because it comes from living trees. But the server was unclear as to where Verbena was getting Pennsylvania zucchini in February for its featured appetizer of “moriscos,” a steel crock of tasty Moroccan-spiced squash and currants. (They weren’t local; they came on the Baldor truck).
I’m still perplexed as to what kind of fish, other than one still flopping around, is graded fresher than something I’d eat raw. She was the second server at two meals to tout this odd claim, and she dug an even deeper hole when pressed, slipping into vagaries about water temperatures, provenance, and travel time from boat to plate — which was ironic, as much of Verbena’s otherwise fine fish is sourced from Alaska and New Zealand.
Aside from being inaccurate, the breathless hyperbole risks coming off as condescending to a scene well-versed in locavore ways, thanks to pioneer Talula’s Table just a few doors down State Street. Many of these folks probably won’t blink at entrées that hover in the high $20s on up. And it’s simply unnecessary when the quality is evident on the plate.
And most of the time, it was.
On its pedestals of ruffled shells, the scallop crudo was as delicious as it was beautiful, the raw scallop’s oceanic notes amplified by the sweetness of Cara Cara oranges three ways — jellied, fresh, and candied into strips — along with a swirl of basil oil and lemongrass vinegar. The deep orange hue of Ora King salmon (sustainably farmed in New Zealand) was cured in gunpowder tea and vodka, then sliced into a thick translucent stripe of fish over creamy onion soubise.
Earthy celery root soup was artfully brightened with the sweetness and smoke of charred Fuji apples in the puree, with the tart crunch of saffron-pickled apples added as garnish. Trim from prime-grade rib eye was minced into a luscious beef tartare that sparked with a three-mustard vinaigrette and the extra gloss of a raw quail egg yolk on top. Even a simple salad of peppery winter greens from Flying Plow Farm in Maryland was thoughtfully layered with the textural surprises of lentils and haricots verts on the bottom, the subtle richness of avocado vinaigrette and spicy sunflower seeds on top.
There were a handful of moments when Morozin’s old sous-chef impulses to overdo it could have used some editing (not unlike the mission statement on Verbena’s website, which rambles on for 1,100-plus words). His Pocono trout dish, for example, inverts the usual protein-over-starch paradigm and treats the butterflied fish more like a cafeteria tray or shingle, piled high with quinoa salad, sunflower shoots, trout roe, and a scoop of dense pistachio paste that was a “mousse” in aspiration only. The delicacy of the fish was an afterthought. Likewise, Morozin got too tricky with the alt-garnishes by pairing the short rib with two starches — undercooked flageolet beans and a sticky puree of kabocha squash that I’d have deleted for more of an actual sauce over the meat, which was tender but dry. I also would have truly loved the rye-stuffed quail over celery root puree had the honey-basted bird been roasted to a better crisp. The flanks were a little flabby.
Morozin’s successes, though, easily outweighed the missteps.
The delicacy of a gorgeous West Coast halibut with apple slaw and a coconut milk potato velouté played off the meaty crisp of a braised pork belly. The prime-grade rib eye, butchered in house from a 15-pound side of beef, came over a potato croquette stuffed with minced deckle trim that was deep-fried in tallow rendered from the rib eye’s fat cap. Yet more trimmings from that beef resulted in a Restaurant Week special that also was one of Verbena’s most memorable dishes: “unclassic” beef meatballs that came in a crock of light tomato sauce misted over with a fog of Parmesan foam. Scattered with the tart crunch of pickled fennel, these surprising basil-scented orbs made for a fun and inventive starter, if not necessarily a bid to replace the real thing in Sunday gravy.
Like a lot of bare-bones BYOBs without dedicated pastry chefs, Verbena’s desserts represent a downshift with some room for refinement. The stylish dome of the chocolate gateau with a crunchy maple tuile and side of a truffle is a good choice that should satisfy any basic cocoa cravings. But the lemon tart would have been better if its curd had had more tart snap and was less runny. I also wish the chef had resisted adding yet another flavor to the tart, already overcomplicated with pickled pistachios and raspberries, with a light chocolate ganache beneath the pastry that clashed. Ditto for the busy flavors of the bread pudding’s crème anglaise: Choose either rose or orange blossom to perfume it — not both.
My favorite dessert was the baklava, an unlikely Mediterranean classic that Morozin has carried with him through his past two stops as a tribute to the Aygris family. They own Canal Street Grille and are among the many employers he’s appreciated over his long and methodical path to owning this place: “They were more than generous to me personally and among the most welcoming families I’ve seen.”
Morozin likes to say that his version is “less sweet,” opting for honey ice cream instead of baklava’s usual syrup drizzle. But it’s hard not to take a bite of its flaky, cinnamon-scented layers, acknowledge the two-decade journey of anonymous hard work that went into landing at this bistro, and think of it as anything but a fitting sweet finale.
102 E. State St., Kennett Square, 484-732-7932; verbenabyob.com
Chef-owner Scott Morozin has given downtown Kennett Square a sophisticated destination BYOB that frames mostly local ingredients in creative combinations tweaked with contemporary techniques, from olive “paper” to Parmesan foam. The tableside hype sometimes borders on hyperbole, and some dishes can be overwrought with too many flourishes. But that doesn’t obscure the try-hard warmth of the service at this ambitious bistro, or the very good flavors that make a good case to root for Morozin, a longtime journeyman chef (last at Sola in Bryn Mawr) who has the elements here of a promising ownership debut.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Celery root and charred apple soup; prime beef tartare; “un-classic” meatballs; cured salmon; scallop crudo; chicken “Bolognese”; mushroom-stuffed chicken; prime rib-eye; verbena-crusted halibut; chocolate gâteau; baklava.
BYOB A food-friendly middleweight red wine (like pinot, Sangiovese or cab franc) would be a nice match for this menu. But a growler of beer from one of the local breweries (Kennett Brewing Co.; Victory) or a bottle of Chester County wine (Va La; Galer) would also be a fantastic pairing for a restaurant that touts the locavore roots of its food.
WEEKEND NOISE The noise level is reasonable, though table spacing is tight, so if the next party over is drinking heavily, the boisterous factor can climb quickly.
IF YOU GO Dinner Sunday, Tuesday through Thursday, 5-9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until 10 p.m.
Dinner entrées, $26-$42.
All major cards.
Wheelchair accessible entrance on side of building.