Whether it’s school supplies hitting shelves in mid-July, the scent of cinnamon brooms in supermarkets a solid month before the fall solstice, or candy canes making their debut the day after Halloween, signs of seasonal changes are hardly subtle. When it comes to dining, the transition is just as dramatic. Seemingly overnight, menu space at Philadelphia restaurants once reserved for summer melon salads and chilled corn soups is suddenly invaded by Brussels sprouts and kabocha squash.
As abrupt as these seasonal shifts may seem to diners, the chefs behind these dishes start planning early. When it comes to menu changes throughout the year, Greg Vernick of Vernick Food & Drink, Vernick Fish, and Vernick Coffee Bar sees two approaches. The first is what he calls a hostile takeover — a full menu overhaul revamping almost all of the dishes, all at once. “It’s like ripping off a Band-Aid,” he says. “We don’t do that.”
Instead, Vernick and his team take their time, staggering out the introduction of new dishes over the course of the entire season, easing in with one or two a week. “Fall flavors shine in this region,” Vernick says, thinking of the abundance of apples, pears, mushrooms, and root vegetables grown in southeastern Pennsylvania.
Make a reservation at Vernick Food & Drink now, and you might see a savory pear custard finished with Meyer lemon, aged balsamic, and parmesan, sweet potatoes roasted with mole and topped off with pomegranate seeds, and baked wild boar lasagna layered with butternut squash.
Across town, at a restaurant that puts out similarly stunning in-season fare, chef-owner Kelsey Bush of Bloomsday Cafe goes the other route, diving headfirst into a new season. She’s been doing a nearly full revamp of the menu every six weeks since the restaurant opened in July. This changing of the produce guard benefits both the chef and Bloomsday’s clientele, she says.
“Changing the menu seasonally gives diners what they’re excited to eat, and keeps the kitchen on its toes,” Bush says, adding that the only item that retains full-time residency on the menu is the burger, though the the pickles it’s served with vary. Diners looking to get in on newly introduced dishes at Bloomsday can dig into a warming bowl of risotto studded with Mycopolitan oysters and trumpet and shiitake mushrooms and finished with sage, toasted hazelnuts, and shaved St. Malachi cheese from the Farm at Doe Run in Chester County.
Elsewhere in the city, chefs have been quietly shifting menu favorites to embrace fall and winter flavors, often just tweaking a sauce or side. At Forsythia, Christopher Kearse’s new contemporary French bistro in Old City, the wood oven–roasted chicken traded in bone marrow and summery garnishes in favor of a fall-friendly combo of smoked mushrooms and pickled pumpkin.
In Center City at Abe Fisher, part of the CookNSolo restaurant group with Zahav and K’Far, three dishes are always in rotation on chef Yehuda Sichel’s menu: seasonal riffs on Caesar salad, crudo, and a fruit tart. Currently, the Caesar tosses kale, Brussels sprouts, and grapes with pumpernickel croutons, and the tuna and salmon crudo is sprinkled with diced apples, pears, and Fresno chiles. Sweet-tart local Concord grapes are baked into the tart.
Ssam, Korean dishes with leafy greens wrapped around meat, are given a weather-appropriate spin by chef Daniel An at Southgate, where proteins like pork shoulder, hanger steak, and tofu are served with in-season lettuce wraps (think butter lettuce in the summer and red leaf in the fall) and a rotation of vegetable sides that range from heirloom tomatoes in summer to a crisp pear slaw come autumn.
In Rittenhouse Square, the menu at Scarpetta menu relies heavily on anchors such as braised octopus and branzino. Both of these seafood preparations tend to lean lighter in the spring and summer but in the fall, octopus is braised in guazzetto, a Roman-style broth of white wine, onion and garlic. The branzino come with the bitter-hearty combo of broccoli rabe and rosemary lentils.
When talking about seasonality, Vernick jokes that people always get excited about the same things, like Brussels sprouts. And while years of roasted sprouts with bacon have certainly made these mini-cabbages into something of a fall menu cliche, there are plenty of chefs out there who are using the cold weather staple in new ways.
At Stina, chef Bobby Saritoglou’s atypical West Passyunk pizzeria, he takes Brussels sprouts to the Middle East, incorporating them into a fattoush starter. The salad usually mixes torn pieces of charred flatbread with tomatoes, cucumber, olive oil, and lemon juice. But it’s cold outside, so Saritoglou subs Granny Smith apples, celery, and, yes, Brussels sprouts into the mix, along with a more traditional crumble of feta to top it all off.