Just how much sinning do you like to do over dinner?
That’s a good question to chew on at Nicole Marquis’s mysterious new bar on 13th Street, where you can drink bourbon and absinthe beneath a looming hardback edition of In Cold Blood, watch sultry projections of Marilyn Monroe flicker upon the ruffles of a diaphanous wall curtain, and soak up your alcohol with food completely untainted by animal products.
In an era abounding with culinary hobgoblins—gluten for him, fructose for her, GMOs for the guy down the street—veganism still reigns unrivaled as the diet of the ethically upright. But the plant-only jawn feels a little racier at Charlie Was a Sinner, and not just because it’s next door to the last surviving porn shop on this once-seedy strip. Marquis, the woman behind HipCityVeg, named her lounge the way Elmore Leonard started crime novels. Who’s Charlie? Has he—or she—repented? Exactly what sort of sin are we talking about here?
You won’t get answers from the coy servers who patrol this dramatically appointed room, lit by Gatsby chandeliers that bathe in the submarine glow of walls painted deep cerulean blue. “We don’t talk about Charlie,” most of them say, which makes it all feel like a bit of a gag. Silence might be a better tack. The menu has its own statements to make.
Drinks come first, and set more than one tone. The worst cocktail is the most intriguing—not least because the menu lists it inside a singular black box that just goads you into trying it: wheatgrass juice and green Chartreuse. What a gauntlet to throw down! For not even the Carthusian monks’ herbal liqueur can conquer the astringent nastiness of that benighted extraction of chlorophyll, whose status as a revered (but unproven) curative is Exhibit A for why a certain strain of veganism inspires skepticism. Yet there’s something deliciously paradoxical about its conspicuous presence on the menu, because every other drink I had here zeroed in directly on hedonism.
Bar manager Pete Venuto’s spread, created in partnership with Barclay Prime's Bob Caskey, runs the gamut from tropical fruitiness to positively Churchillian booziness, and is distinguished by fresh juices and unusual enhancements like farro-infused Woodford Reserve and cinnamon-spiced blueberry wine.
Les Fleurs du Mal, a blend of white port and citrus kombucha with pineapple on the rim and raspberries caught between the ice cubes, was everything a sangria should be, including not too sweet. The East of Eden, a sort of alt-perfect manhattan featuring tea-infused Dolin Blanc and brown muscat, actually did right by Steinbeck’s greatest novel. A heat-wave happy hour brought a $6 thirst-quencher of silver tequila, jalapeño and frothy pineapple juice, plus a $6 experiment on beet juice, blueberries, brandy and prosecco that was just as earthy and oddly bubbly as one might intuit from its name: the Beetlejuice.
Chef Michael Santoro’s menu pulls off a neat trick: vegan bar food that’s by turns healthful enough to make your body feel good, and dirty enough to keep you drinking. His featherweight potato croquettes are the crispiest in town. Korean-style tofu is well suited to the deep fryer, too: crunchy, spicy, nutty, sweet. I could eat Santoro’s sourdough toasts (born of a two-year-old starter he brought from the Mildred) all day long. The best one is topped with maitakes, honey mushrooms, sweated pearl onions and plump barley kernels held against the deeply charred bread by a Dortmunder-enriched mushroom reduction.
There are a few head-scratchers, like why anybody would saddle perfectly fine zucchini patties with a name like Maryland Style Crab Cakes, or court another losing comparison by titling faintly bitter whipped tofu Our Ricotta. Grilled young leeks were too fibrous and needed more romesco sauce. But my only real disappointment (aside from desserts) was the lack of a starch to soak up a jus whose steam inflated a cellophane papillote of sunchokes and tofu that was popped tableside like a mushroom-perfumed balloon. That called for a helping of Santoro’s delicate polenta, which another evening was terrifically endowed with subtly acidic nebrodini mushrooms and plancha-charred slices of hot-smoked Big Sungold tomatoes. Vegan cooking demands deep caramelization and layered flavoring, and Santoro nails both.
But back to the cocktails, because there are two you must try. The Hasty Tasty fortifies a Loire Valley sparkler and a monbazillac dessert wine with a muscat grappa whose high-octane charge seems almost to electrify the bubbles rising around the frozen grapes at the bottom of the glass. And the velvety Escape Velocity melds cherry liqueur, Carpano Antica and clementine with the smoked-leather undertones of tobacco-infused Johnnie Walker.
What a wickedly delicious plant incursion. It confronted me with another question I wouldn’t have expected a vegan place to prompt: Should I start smoking?
2.5 stars out of 4 - Good to Excellent
Charlie Was a Sinner [Foobooz]
This review by Trey Popp will be published in the September 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.