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Progressive dinner

(585) checks out the two new hottest spots in town

There’s a bit of an unspoken trend in Rochester dining. Dinner plans are made, and then so are drink plans. Pre-game or post-game is up to the schedule of the diners—who has to get home to relieve a babysitter?—but almost every evening outing includes a jaunt to another restaurant or bar. And since downtown Rochester has so many tempting options these days, it makes sense to hit two (or more) in the same night. Call it a progressive dinner, of sorts.

Because downtown establishments Redd and Vern’s both opened to the public on Friday, August 16, many of these “progressive dinners” have happened between the two spots over the past few months. For this piece, cocktails and appetizers were previewed at Redd, while dinner, dessert, and wine was previewed at Vern’s.

I’m going to do something I rarely do and switch to first person for this review. My companion for the evening was a friend who also owns a farm, and when we met for this review, he had just returned from a trip to Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Chef Dan Barber’s farm-to-table mecca outside New York City. Barber’s 2014 book, The Third Plate, as well his articles on food and agriculture in the New York Times have influenced much of the past decade’s conversation about sustainable, forward-thinking dining. The four-hour, multiple course dinners at Blue Hill are famed for their playfulness, education, and ingenious use of all seasonal ingredients.

Much of our conversation throughout the evening centered on both the future of food and what makes a dinner out thoroughly enjoyable. We agreed that, at its core, a memorable, positive dining experience is about so much more than how food tastes. It begins with the greeting of the host and continues with lighting levels, music, and temperature of the room. Attentiveness of the server, seating comfort, and proximity to other diners are all key factors. If you want fast and cheap, there are chains and drive-throughs aplenty. But high-end, fine dining needs to be held to a higher standard.

When celebrity chef (and Rochester native) Richard Reddington announced he was opening a restaurant in the former 2 Vine location on Winthrop Street, foodies went wild. Reddington’s Napa Valley spot, Redd, held a Michelin Star from 2008-2013 and closed in October 2018 after thirteen years. The internet was littered with excited comments from Rochesterians who’d visited Redd in Napa and couldn’t wait for the same level of dining here. While we’re on the topic, can we agree to stop saying things like that? There are hosts of talented chefs and restaurateurs in Rochester; people working eighty or more hours a week to elevate the scene and create memorable dining. Just because the James Beard Foundation and the Michelin Star committees haven’t figured out how to spotlight midsized, under-the-radar cities isn’t Rochester’s fault. One celebrity chef returning home to open a restaurant probably isn’t going to change that. But I digress.

The interior of Redd has a distinctly West Coast vibe, with muted grays and wood trimming, an airy layout, and cushy, camel leather booths along the middle of the dining room. A wall full of slender shelving displays hardcover cookbooks from all over the world. A long bar runs the length of one wall, providing plentiful seating for folks like us, who were just in for a quick bite and a good cocktail or two.

We ordered the Orange Whip (white rum, blanco tequila, fresh orange, ginger), a strong, refreshing sipper served in a martini glass, and the Plum Rush (gin, honey, plum, lemon, plum bitters), a lighter, sweeter choice served in a rocks glass. In a city filled with local beverage culture, it was disappointing to see general types of ingredients listed rather than specific brands, though the cocktails ($12 each) were well made.

From the bar menu, we selected the Redd Wings (there’s a missed opportunity somewhere in that name) and the Glazed Pork Belly ($14 and $13, respectively). The wings are massive, dripping in a thai chili glaze and sprinkled with sesame seeds and chives. The crunch of the skin complements the sticky, sweet sauce, making for an addictive dish that was tempting to reorder after we demolished all five. The glazed pork belly, served with apple puree, soy caramel and frizee, is a decadent dish that was nicely cut by the acidic notes in the Orange Whip cocktail. A few surprise apple slices on the plate and the curly lettuce balanced the salty, rich texture of the pork belly. The total for two appetizers and drinks was at a higher price point among local establishments, just over $50 with tip.

We then headed a few streets over to Vern’s on Park Avenue, the newest member of the Swan family of restaurants (which includes Ox & Stone, Swan Dive, The Daily Refresher, Dorado, and Roux). Vern’s was inspired by the grandparents of sibling owners Jon, Ashley and Paulina Swan. It opened in the former Esan Thai location, and the space was completely overhauled to give off a homey, warm vibe with vibrant color pops, a custom flowered wall by Rochester artist Thievin’ Stephen, and dozens of candles. The bar slopes around the entire front and side of the main dining area, and there’s an additional dining room upstairs. Front and back patio areas – rare for a Park Avenue spot to have a back patio – are popular options in warmer temps.

The menu pays homage to the home cooked dishes the Swan siblings remember from visits to Vern and Lee Swan’s house. It’s mostly Italian, which is certainly nothing new for Rochester, but beloved nonetheless. We started with a bottle of Meinklang Foam Red, a natural Austrian wine with a touch of effervescence and a dry finish. In keeping with the growing local appreciation, Vern’s has natural wine on the menu at all times, though most are only available by the bottle and not by the glass. The cocktails are also standout and boast many local ingredients curated by head bartender and part owner Casey O’Mara.

But ordering a bottle of wine works with the sharing nature of the frequently rotating menu at Vern’s. We started with the signature Tomato Pie, which is a room-temperature square of pillowy focaccia-esque dough, olive oil, oregano, and maldon salt. The melt-in-your-mouth pie is almost always available by the slice in a glass case just inside the front door at Vern’s.

Our next course was the Broken Burrata—another dish that’s always on the menu but changes ingredients seasonally—served with Denny’s (local) pickled peppers, prosciutto, basil, and torn bread. It’s a messy, delicious appetizer best enjoyed with a fork and eaten quicker than your dining pal. Then came the Lost Meatball Ragu, a heaping bowl of lumache pasta (think wider shells) and red sauce topped with a generous dollop of cold ricotta and hydroponic Bolton Farms basil. (This is a pasta you fight over if you’re sharing—it’s that good.) We finished with a creamy pumpkin panna cotta dessert special, topped with homemade spiced whipped cream.

There’s a camaraderie in the Vern’s experience—from seeing familiar hospitality industry folk at the bar to the local ingredients on the menu—that speaks to the care, connection with their community, and attention to detail the Swan family puts into every location. Thanks to them, we all get to experience going to grandma and grandpa’s house.

As my friend and I parted ways after two very different dining experiences, we agreed that no matter what kind of vibe you’re looking for during an evening out, there’s something special happening in the Rochester food and drink scene. It’s growing, it’s becoming more educated, the local hospitality industry is paying attention to trends and quality—and local diners only stand to benefit. //

Leah Stacy is a food- and beverage-centric content creator based in Rochester.


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