I plunge a tiny fork into a zesty scoop of broiled Oysters Philadelphia, take one hot gulp, and realize a new chapter in this city’s grand fish house history is ready to be told.
The oysters, which come stuffed into the cast-iron divots of an escargot tray at Vernick Fish, are snug with bread crumbs seasoned with broccoli rabe, provolone, and crispy bits of salami. Broiled to a juicy crisp, they emerge beneath toasty brioche coins like tiny morsels of buttery seafood stuffing — that also uncannily convey the swagger of a hot South Philly hoagie. Playful, but rooted in an unmistakable taste of place, they’re not simply a delicious new creation from star chef Greg Vernick and his team at their restaurant in the new Comcast Technology Center. They’re among the many essential flavors of an ambitious venture — along with luxurious Dover sole, lustily spiced clam beignets and global raw bar flavors — that seems as mindful of this city’s culinary tradition as it is of its future.
There was a time, decades ago, when the venerable old fish houses were synonymous with Philadelphia’s identity. The Bookbinder restaurants had cabbies on a string, delivering tourists and celebrities alike for sherry-splashed bowls of snapper soup, lumpy crabcakes, and mile-high strawberry shortcake. By the time those century-old bastions of tradition had faded from glory, a new kind of swanky seafood palace — Striped Bass — arrived in the 1990s to signal Philly’s next wave, the glitz of Walnut Street’s Restaurant Row that put this city’s contemporary chefs on a national stage.
Walnut Street’s eventual decline as a restaurant district was as much a reflection of rising retail rents as it was changing tastes, a recession, and our stronger affinity for sophisticated neighborhood dining over gaudy expense account restaurants. But seafood-centric concepts continued to dwindle, save for the stalwart Oyster House, still our best raw bar, and smaller low-key gems like Dmitri’s and Little Fish.
The debut of Vernick Fish, however, announces another bold new phase — one framed by the swelling corporate might of Comcast as it shifts Philly’s magnetic pole of power (and power dining) to its complex of skyscrapers along JFK Boulevard, where the new Four Seasons Hotel is managing the dining operations.
And from a perspective of scale and big money polish, there’s nothing quite like Vernick’s partnership with the hotel on the Technology Center’s ground floor — a massive 142-seat dining room (plus 60 planned outdoor seats) that nearly runs the 1800 block of Arch Street. The long and sunny room outfitted by mega-designer Adam Tihany with big globe lights, ocean blue banquettes and walnut wood floors, a zinc top front bar and an open kitchen fringed by hanging copper pans, thrums with a classic rock soundtrack and the energetic vibe of an urban brasserie.
Gueridon carts roll through the room bearing bronzed whole fish to be deboned tableside. International celebs sip mezcal martinis and Swizzle Jawn cocktails washed with coconut oil in the lounge (where we saw former national security adviser Susan Rice tucking into a meal). Ten identical plate sets of harissa-grilled prawns and perfectly roasted black bass are briskly whisked by synchronized servers in linen aprons to a private party in the back room.
It’s an airy and bustling contrast to the cozy warren of rooms and small tables that distinguish the intimate Walnut Street original where Vernick Food & Drink has become a four-bell favorite. But chef Vernick has embraced the culinary challenge of producing food on this scale without compromising quality.
>> Read Craig’s Dining Guide review of Vernick Food & Drink
The concept of a modern oyster bar has been blooming in Vernick’s mind for years, and it begins with those mollusks, not just broiled, but skillfully shucked raw by Alberto Sanchez. There are local Sugar Shack Cocktail gems from Barnegat to go along with briny Cadillacs from Maine and Island Creeks from Massachusetts, and some tender Virginia top neck clams brimming with so much briny liquor it was like washing my taste buds with surf.
A Korean touch of gochujang to the cocktail sauce was a perfect tweak and another hint of the global influences that continue to inform Vernick’s borderless cooking. Yellow dabs of aji amarillo chile vinaigrette enliven lightly torched ribbons of kingfish. Thai aromatics infuse the coconut milk that cures halibut ceviche. Warm crumbles of popcorn, inspired by Brazil, add surprising crunch to a citrusy ceviche of cured swordfish belly, while the classic luxury of caviar jeweling striped jack sashimi is dabbed with crème fraîche scented with mace.
Vernick’s unique ability to refine textures and focus flavors transforms seemingly minimalist combinations into memorable compositions, with unusual takes like the strips of raw fluke that are dusted with crushed candied hazelnuts and a gloss of brown butter. A whip-crack of spice from long hot peppers adds a heat spark to the creamy sea richness of uni butter toast.
There were a few missteps. A fascinatingly sheer slice of octopus carpaccio — 24 tentacles pressed into a mosaic terrine — was overwhelmed by too much parsley vinaigrette. A bland trout BLT at lunch was another light disappointment, as was the smallish portion of roasted monkfish at $32, though it was saved by the Jersey-style blush of two styles of chowder — red and white — that swirled together in the bowl.
For the most part, the cooking here was spot-on, as was the well-informed (albeit chatty) service. And while the upscale prices reflect the quality of ingredients and luxury setting, Vernick says his food cost is running higher than ideal (upward of 40% versus the industry standard 30%). And for those who can afford it, a bowl of risotto topped with a fan of sweet raw scallop — then a hale of fresh-shaved white truffles — is worth it for $62. (White truffle supplements alone can run $40-$50). The scallop’s natural sweetness multiplied as it warmed over the creamy rice and met the truffle’s intensely earthy perfume.
And there is no replacement for the elegant texture of a fresh Dover sole, whose tightly woven firm flesh was glazed in a classic meuniere sauce of brown butter and herbs. That 2-pound fish, a $115 splurge big enough to serve two or three, is the most traditional move on this menu. A juiced grilled swordfish over poached artichokes in lemony caper piccata sauce was close behind.
But I was just as impressed by some inventive smaller plates crafted resourcefully from fish trim. Spare tuna is ground into a spicy ’Nduja sausage with fiery Calabrian chilies over saffron ricotta gnocchi. Spare Viking Village scallops are minced into a generous tartare graced with black truffles and Meyer lemon vinaigrette. My favorite, though, was the spicy clam ragout that came in a little copper pot beside four hot pillows of deep-fried savory beignets. I ripped off the ends, filled them with ragout, and devoured the ultimate seafood hot pockets.
Such inventive touches appeared across this big menu of 30-plus items, from the crispy rice that anchored the excellent salmon salad for lunch, to the punchy brown Creole broth and spicy andouille that elevated the roasted fillet of porgy.
Even a head of cabbage gets the royal treatment here, roasted to caramelized sweetness over eight hours, then accompanied by a richly complex Mexican mole. That labor-intensive mole involves such a long list of ingredients, ranging from multiple chilies, clove and cinnamon, to cocoa, apples and duck fat, that such effort seems possibly wasted on a side dish of cabbage. (Cabbage lovers, all 10 of them, I’m sure are ecstatic.)
A little more energy, though, would benefit the desserts. Vernick, who’s known for updating homey delights like blueberry pie at Food & Drink, has embraced full diner dessert case mode here with a glass display of chocolate tortes, Key lime pies, fig tarts, and carrot cake pies. In fact, there’s nothing wrong with any of these treats, which are well made. And, in some ways, they evoke the illuminated tower of old-fashioned cakes and pies that once stood beside the cashier at Old Original Bookbinder’s.
But there’s so much creativity and modern craft elevating the savory creations, that the lack of pastry-chef personality in the dessert course feels a shade anticlimactic. I’m all for nods to Philly’s fish house history. But Vernick Fish also represents a bold vision for updating that tradition, and its desserts should be the sweet exclamation point on a project well done.