Alex Boonphaya of Circles Thai and Greg Vernick of Vernick Food and Drink: two very different styles, two very different restaurants, two very satisfying experiences.
“Daddy, look! There he goes again!” Sure enough, my daughter was right: Not 15 minutes into our meal at Circles, the Northern Liberties Thai restaurant’s delivery driver was loping in empty-handed and racing out laden with shopping bags full of what many, myself included, feel is the best Thai food in the city.
During a meal that stretched just a little over an hour, he traversed the length of the storefront space that previously housed the old 2nd Street Pizza at least 10 times — enough that I found myself grateful that Alex Boonphaya, Circles’ chef/owner, had invested in an air conditioning system powerful enough to overcome all of those openings.
Boonphaya didn’t miss too much when designing Circles. That’s because the restaurant, which opened a little over a year ago, is a younger sibling to the first Circles, which opened at 15th and Tasker in Point Breeze — sorry, Newbold — in 2011. (The South Philly location has one of the more unusual setups you will see in Philadelphia: The food is brought over from the restaurant’s original, take-out only location across the street.)
The long, narrow storefront space has a long banquette with nifty triangular fabric cushions, some minimalist artwork and objets d’art that help to modify the room’s acoustics and frame its 36 seats. As my daughter helpfully pointed out, it seemed as if all of them were filled with couples of all makes and models on dates.
On an elemental level, having a dinner date at a Thai restaurant makes a certain amount of sense: The laws of chemistry dictate that applying heat helps to reveal the true nature of a bond. And Circles doesn’t shy away from the Scoville units — the servers spend a good deal of time going over your order to make sure you understand the heat level of your choices.
Even with the advance knowledge, I couldn’t help but let out a muffled murmur of surprise upon the first bite of a seared duck breast salad beribboned with slivers of fresh bird’s eye chili peppers. As the citrusy capsaicins began their sinus-clearing dance, the other flavors and textures came into focus: the slightly gamy chew of the duck breast accentuated by the buttery crunch of cashews, the sweet tartness of a chili-lime dressing glossing the greens and cutting the richness of the nuts and meat. A lemongrass soup — the classic tom yum — also impressed, its clear broth infused with a heat gentle enough that my 9-year-old was delighted to be able to finish her “spicy” soup carrying hints of galangal, kaffir lime leaves and tamarind swirling around the firm vegetables and chicken. And Boonphaya’s newest appetizer, a smoked salmon summer roll filled to bursting with lettuce, cucumbers, carrots and avocado, is sure to please gluten-free diners and complex carb-eschewers alike.
By the time our appetizer plates were removed, it was clear that Circles represented a departure from what we have come to expect from a Thai restaurant in Philadelphia. The cooking of Thailand has long lacked the showcase spots here that other Asian cuisines like Szechuan (Han Dynasty), Vietnamese (Nam Son), Burmese (Rangoon) and Indonesian (Sky Café) have enjoyed.
Part of Boonphaya’s success can be traced to his background. In addition to working in his family’s Thai restaurant in Orlando as a teenager, he also attended that city’s branch of Le Cordon Bleu cooking school. But it was the two years he spent working under Martin Hamann, then the executive chef at the Four Seasons Philadelphia, that gave him the final set of skills needed to bring his vision of his country’s culinary heritage to life here.
Nowhere are his skills at incorporating other influences into an unapologetically Thai flavor profile more in evidence than in Circles’ “Chef Alex Recommends” section of the menu. The dishes here change regularly, reflecting his frequent trips back to Thailand for inspiration. The Penang Seitan Special featured the spongy, protein-rich wheat-based meat substitute braised in a Bangkok curry that initially masked its moderate heat in a cloak of coconut milk.
Northern Kow Soi Curry was the favorite dish of the night. Not coincidentally, it also rivaled the duck salad for having the most distinct flavors and textures. Housemade edamame ravioli lay hidden underneath a mild Chiang Mai curry made earthier than the Bangkok version by more liberal use of root spices like galangal, ginger and garlic. A quarter chicken fell apart at the merest hint of pressure from a fork, and was given snappy counterpoints of crispy egg noodles and pickled mustard greens — one of the most intense umami bombs out there right now.
Based on our server’s repeatedly asking, “Are you sure you want it Thai hot?” the Southern Kua Kling Curry was the most anticipated dish of the evening. It did not disappoint. Four types of peppers — fresh and dried bird’s eye, Serrano and a variant of Szechuan peppercorns — clung to cubes of wagyu eye round that still emanated a hint of fish sauce funk from its pre-grilling marinade. It brought tears to my eyes. No, really — while my nose didn’t start running, I could not get my eyes to stop watering. Despite the heat, the secondary flavors — like the local baby heirloom carrots’ sweetness — still shone through. A Thai cucumber spritz mocktail, an inspired concoction of cucumber, lime, lime leaf and lemongrass, went a long way toward cooling things down.
The only thing I didn’t like about Circles? That it took me so long to move past my previous Thai restaurant disappointments. I plan on making up for lost time by giving their deliveryman plenty of opportunities in the near future.
Dinner for two, around $75, with mocktails. 812 North Second Street, Philadelphia; www.circlesthai.com; 267-687-1309
How impressive is Vernick Food & Drink’s layout? So much so that it would be worth checking out even if the food wasn’t that great. Of course, with Cherry Hill native Greg Vernick, whose resume is studded with stints at some of the best restaurants on the East Coast — including Tocqueville and Jean-Georges in New York and Clio in Boston — as chef/owner, there was no danger of that happening. The 3,000-square-foot, bilevel space on Walnut Street, once the longtime home of William H. Allen Bookstore, has been completely rethought by Merchantville-based design firm DSGNTëC. A 10-seat slate bar seems to be exactly what Vernick meant when he said that he wanted to open a restaurant like those he and his wife, Julie, enjoyed in Europe — an unpretentious, welcoming spot that just happened to have great food and drink. A narrow hallway opens up dramatically onto a back dining room with an open kitchen with a (by now obligatory) chef’s table. An open staircase made with compressed wood leads to one of the most attractive second-floor dining rooms in recent memory — the farthest thing from the dreaded “restaurant Siberia” that afflicts most upstairs spaces. In fact, sitting at one of Vernick’s second-floor tables, looking past the wrought-iron railings to the late-summer crowds moving along Walnut Street, last-ditch sunbeams glancing off of north-facing windows, even an overcooked burger with undercooked fries would taste pretty good.
Instead, we just had to settle for toast.
As anyone who has read anything about Vernick since it opened last year knows, toast is a big deal here. How he works with this staple is just the most high-profile example of the chef’s commitment to coaxing the most out of his locally sourced ingredients and then pairing them in unexpected ways. Thus, a simple piece of Metropolitan sourdough becomes the barely smoky vessel for fromage blanc and pickled cherries toast. And when the cherries are fresh-pickled, judiciously dotting a snowfield of house-made white cheese that has been carefully applied to conceal a voluptuously sweet layer of caramelized onions, well, that’s a pretty good indicator you’re in the hands of someone confident enough to defy expectations in a playfully revealing way.
The rest of the menu contains small surprises as well, and is designed to encourage the ordering of multiple plates. The “raw” section contains Vernick’s interpretations of crudo, including a deeply enjoyable rendition of tuna poke, the Hawaiian classic of raw tuna, soy sauce, candlenuts, sesame oil, seaweed and chili peppers. Vernick’s cubes of yellowfin tuna are flecked with sesame seeds and crispy macadamia nuts, and sit in a pool of sweet soy strewn with rafts of thinly sliced radishes. For someone who only thought of macadamias as good for cookies and nothing else, that first punch of yielding-meets-sweet/salty/crunchy is a revelation. The kampachi, dressed with citrus supremes and slices of lychee and jalapeño, was an exercise in restraint, as the mildly buttery fish brought its accompaniments together in a way that accentuated the hint of the ocean carried in its flesh.
Among the inevitable “small plates” section, we deferred to our server, who knew the composition of menu items — and the restrictions of kosher-style dining — so well that she was able to previously warn us off of ordering a beef tartare because it contained cheese. Her first recommendation was grilled romaine heart with figs and aged cheddar. Once upon a time, grilled romaine could be found on seemingly every trendy restaurant menu, taking the place of the raw version in Caesar salad. No throwback here, though. Warm and singed on the outer leaves, crispy-cold at its heart, drizzled with a tangy buttermilk dressing holding a drift of local cheese that could hold its own against anything from Parma, this was a great summer salad. Housemade fresh mozzarella, served au naturel in twists and fried in Whopper-sized balls, anchored a salad of fresh peaches and tomato compote. If you do try this dish, be prepared to have all future versions of fried mozzarella suffer in comparison.
We were so intrigued by the offerings in the other sections of the menu that we found ourselves with room for only one choice from the “large plates” section: a daily addition of red drum, a sport fish from the Gulf Coast. Served with slightly vinegary fresh chanterelles and golden-skinned smashed fingerlings, this was yet another example of the sure hand Vernick’s kitchen has with fish.
The restaurant excels in so many areas, though, that it is easy to understand why it is still so tough to get a primetime reservation more than a year after its opening. The staff is unfailingly polite and friendly, starting with the multiple hostesses who greet you as soon as you enter the space. The beverage program is not only first-rate but fairly priced, with fascinating selections from lesser known regions of Spain, Italy and France — including a delicious cero rosato from Librandi, a Calabrian vintner — complementing offerings from the more recognizable denominations. There is a small selection of draft and bottled beers that still manages to traverse from Stoudt’s German-style pilsner to Jever’s actual German pilsner. The cocktail list thoughtfully includes classics like a Jack Rose and a Pimm’s Cup, as well as new interpretations like the Yakima Valley gimlet, made with Hophead’s beer-infused vodka. And if you’re teetotaling, the bartenders make a rotating selection of mocktails, including ginger-lime soda and old-fashioned fruit shrubs (blueberry on the night we were there).
Sipping on a bright, fruity espresso made with Café L’Aube beans, mopping up the last stray pieces of a peach shortcake — made with a scone-like biscuit, not the layer cake, mind you — and watching the streetscape settle into its nighttime rhythm, I wondered how long it would be before some European chef goes back to his hometown after dining here, intent on replicating the feel of Vernick.