Back in 2017, when Greg Vernick of Vernick Food & Drink won the James Beard Award for best chef in the mid-Atlantic region, he regularly fielded the question: “How about a second restaurant?”
Vernick had been open six years at the time.
But Vernick was not biting at offers. He said he’d rather refocus on the existing restaurant. “Then the Four Seasons called, and this was definitely a meeting we were going to take,” he recalled last week. “It felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” The Four Seasons, operating the hotel at the Comcast Technology Center, had a space on the 1800 block of Arch Street.
Vernick tossed out the idea of an oyster bar, a style he grew to love during his family’s summers in Margate.
He said he initially didn’t know if the Four Seasons executives would bite. The theme might be too niche, he surmised, even though “I grew up eating this food. They ended up being excited.”
Vernick Fish, now taking reservations for its Aug. 12 public opening, represents an evolution for Vernick as a restaurateur. “We realized pretty early on [at Food & Drink] that people were dining a certain way. They were eating lighter and taking advantage of the opportunity to share. That put us in the direction of seafood- and vegetable-friendly dishes because people were willing to share. If you start with a pasta or a meat dish or something heavier, you get full quicker. We saw something very different with seafood. And we’ve been riding that wave a little bit.”
» UPDATE: The opening dinner menu at Vernick Fish
The new spot, to which chef Drew Parassio has moved in to run, is “very much my interpretation of a modern oyster bar, or seafood restaurant,” Vernick said. “We try to combine what I think of as hallmarks of an oyster bar, like fried clams, a chowder, shrimp cocktail, and oysters and clams on the half-shell. Then we weave in what we think is something exciting.”
And he emphasized that Vernick Fish will not be fancy or expensive — or a direct competitor to Jean-Georges on the 59th floor, a posher operation overseen by Vernick’s mentor, Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Last fall, Vernick opened Vernick Coffee Bar on the second floor, mainly to serve Comcast employees.
» READ MORE: A coffee bar in name, Vernick’s new breakfast-lunch oasis is so much more | Craig LaBan
Vernick Fish’s lunch, for example, is built for speed (less than an hour), with a menu including sandwiches. (A menu had not been made available during a test phase.)
The cuisine, Vernick said, is “stripped down as far as components of the dish go. The fish or the main component of the dish is on the pedestal and we’re just trying to complement it with a pickle or a simple condiment."
He’s particularly juiced about a few items. “You know those spots where they ask you, ‘Do you want it fried, grilled, or blackened?’ That is a phrase that is very dear to me. We’re doing a blackened fluke. Every time the fluke hits the plancha, the smell reminds me of Somers Point.”
There’s an oyster dish called oysters Philadelphia that riffs on Rockefeller. The oysters have Provolone, broccoli rabe, and salami — “like a fun surf and turf oyster. It’s just fun. It makes people smile.”
Check out the pie case for dessert.
The developers brought in Adam Tihany, who has created seven restaurants with Thomas Keller and three for Daniel Boulud, to design the 200-seater, using a partly exposed ceiling, terrazzo floor, and bronze and antique brass details.
“Adam Tihany,” Vernick said last week, still incredulous. “I’m still serving food on Ikea plates at Food & Drink and here’s Adam Tihany.”