During the holidays, it is often difficult to book a table at a reasonable hour, and I do not enjoy dining late. When I called Vernick Food & Drink, I was told the earliest seating was for 9 p.m., but the restaurant’s full menu was available at the bar and in the lounge area.
Edward and I took a leisurely walk in the cold night and hoped a fine, hot dinner would warm us up. Greg Vernick’s restaurant has garnered more buzz than the bees in the White House kitchen garden. I expected to see unusual ingredients prepared with flair.
We slid onto comfortable bar chairs and discussed the menu. There are sides, a la carte vegetables, small plates (I really detest that term) and entrées.
The bartender answered our questions and mixed our martinis ($12). He needed some help as the restaurant was quickly filling up at 6 p.m.
Since I love steak tartare and rarely see it on a menu, I wanted to try Vernick’s version ($14). A waiter brought us a white plate that contained one slice of toasted sourdough bread topped with very well-prepared, perfectly seasoned steak tartare cut into three pieces. I expected something more; a dish that would set the stage for the wow factor. Some sort of colorful garnish would have filled out the plate nicely.
We also ordered a blend of smoky chopped eggplant enhanced by heady buttery chanterelles, which resulted in a delicious culinary marriage.
I had hoped to see some seasonal game, such as venison, quail or rabbit on the menu but for $45 you can feast on a whole Amish chicken. By process of elimination, Edward and I decided on the seafood bake ($62), which we were told was meant for two.
The wine list is as expensive as the menu items. With the bartender’s help, we decided on a bottle of Giraudon ($36), a light, white burgundy from France. After a sip, we knew it would drink well with the seafood bake.
Cooking a mélange of seafood so each fish is done just so can be tricky. I’ve had my share of rubbery, overcooked fish swimming in salty broth. Vernick delivered on this dish that contained each fish the bartender described to us.
A waiter brought a round, cast-iron kettle filled with tasty seafood nestled in a light broth. Several large head-on prawns imparted a delicate smoky flavor as if they had spent just the right amount of time in a wood-burning oven. Several jumbo shrimp kept company with a few creamy mussels, scallops, baby squid and calamari rings; tiny clams in their shells; and a few good-size chunks of firm, mild fish. Edward and I enjoyed the contrast of pairing baked fish with a light fish broth. Usually, fish are steamed and then added to liquid. I think this was the finest version of fish stew, even though it is called seafood bake, I’ve had in recent memory. All it required was a few slices of toasted bread, first rubbed with garlic and topped with olive oil, so we could enjoy the sauce. Alas, not to be.
Desserts shine at Vernick and we had room for something sweet. An individual pecan tart ($10) was baked in a slightly sugary homemade crust. Pecan pie can be cloyingly sweet but this one hit the mark. A big dollop of rich coffee ice cream made me smile. The same can be said for the blueberry pie ($10), which came with vanilla ice cream.
Service was as professional as you would find in a fine dining restaurant. The décor is minimalist, the lighting was just right (I could read the menu and see the food on my plate), and for a restaurant filled with people, the acoustics were perfect.
But something was missing, and I just can’t put my finger on it. The food was tasty, very expensive but lacked originality. I had high expectations and thought I would be bowled over. Perhaps Vernick prefers to keep his dishes simple, yet tasty. Still, our bill came to more than $200, which is high for a casual restaurant.
Three tips of the toque to Vernick Food & Drink.
2031 Walnut St.
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