Veganism for Dummies: Bar Bombon Reviewed

With Bar Bombon, Nicole Marquis brings vegan tacos to Rittenhouse. But something about them just doesn’t taste right.

bar-bombon-940You’ve got to be pretty confident to think about opening a vegan restaurant in a town that already has Vedge in it. That’s kind of like going to Williamsburg to open a trendy cocktail bar with a lot of pickles on the menu. Like heading for Yountville with the intention of showing those poor saps what real modernist cuisine looks like.

Locally, it’s like opening a high-end Italian restaurant right across the street from Vetri. That doesn’t happen by mistake. You don’t go through all the effort of opening and then just look up one morning and say, “Huh. I wonder when that Vetri character opened there.”

No, vagaries of real estate aside, when you do something like that, it’s a very deliberate move. You’ve got to believe you have something Marc Vetri doesn’t. And doing vegan—a vegan bar, really, offering lunch and dinner, Latin flavors, margaritas and caipirinhas—right down the street from the vegan bar opened by the people behind Vedge is the same kind of crazy.

AT A GLANCE


Bar Bombon
133 South 18th Street, Rittenhouse Square
267-606-6612

CUISINE: Vegan Latin

PRICES: $$

SNAP JUDGMENT: When the kitchen focuses on the vegetables, Bar Bombon can be interesting, but the fake proteins make it difficult to like the place in a city with so many excellent vegan options.

RECOMMENDED: The empanadas are solid, and if you’re hard up for tacos, the vegetable version here is a good choice.

But that’s what Nicole Marquis did. That’s really Nicole Marquis’s whole game. See, she actually worked with the team behind Vedge for a while (back when they were still running Horizons in Bella Vista) before leaving to open HipCityVeg, doing fast-casual veganism in Rittenhouse and University City. Then last year she opened Charlie Was A Sinner less than a block away from her former boss’s flagship restaurant, doing sleek and sexy veganism. And now there’s Bar Bombon, a kind of Latin-vegan hybrid, which she opened a couple hundred yards away from V Street.

That’s not coincidence. That’s confidence. That’s a business model that’s all about trying very hard to eat the other guy’s (vegan) lunch every day, because you’re just sitting there in his front yard, waiting.

And you have to respect that. You just do. The temerity of it is impressive, and I’d love to tell this as a giant-slayer kind of story where Marquis the Underdog and her ragtag band of scruffy vegans consistently kick the ass of Vedge and V Street, because I like underdog stories and they’re sweet to tell.

But things just didn’t work out that way. Bar Bombon lost me at the chick’n.

It’s the kind of place that offers “beef” tacos and “chorizo” arepas with lime crema; that does fake-beef rellenos and mazorca de maiz—corn on the cob, charred on the grill, touched with salt and served with herbed “butter.” You get where I’m going here?

Air-quote beef is what you serve when you’re ashamed of vegetables. When you’re afraid of them (or afraid that your customers will be afraid of them). At Bombon’s bar, I ate a plate of chick’n empanadas that were decent—the cornmeal shells perfectly cooked, the fake-chicken interior well-spiced and textured, and served with a vinegar-heavy salsa that smoothed over all the rough edges—but couldn’t fully enjoy them because chick’n is a cheater’s way out of thinking creatively about what to serve. It’s food for those comfortable with lying to themselves. A missed opportunity at least, laziness at worst.

But fake meat is one of Marquis’s trademarks. There’s chick’n on the menus at HipCityVeg. At Charlie Was A Sinner, the kitchen uses a little. But at Bar Bombon it’s everywhere—imaginary beef and pork and fish and chicken, as chorizo, as fajita meat. Would it have been tough to do recognizable Latin food without proteins? Absolutely. But that’s a decision Marquis made when she chose the concept for Bar Bombon. And to simply replace the cow protein and pork protein, not with delicious vegetables—with creative uses for produce suitable for the plant enthusiasts she’s courting with Bar Bombon—but with fake meat-analogs that bring none of the flavor and only a weak simulacrum of the texture of the real article? That makes me highly suspect of your kitchen right from the start.

And the worst part is that the vegetal tacos that Bar Bombon offers (right alongside the artificial carne and fajita-style chick’n) are actually good. Served with a side of excellent black beans, the tacos themselves are made with smooth, chewy sautéed mushrooms, charred kale that retains a touch of smoke, grilled cubes of sweet potato gone soft in the heat and a sweet cream dressing. They’re a solid example of meatless tacos done smartly and well. Proof that the kitchen isn’t completely blind to the potential of actual starches and vegetables.

But then there were the dry corn-patty arepas that came understuffed with flavorless cubes of tofu and a scattering of fake chorizo pellets (but with beautiful, perfectly ripe slices of avocado on the side). Those embarrassing fake-beef rellenos. A pair of tofu tacos with a bland pineapple salsa, a slick of white bean puree, and an overall texture like chewing bits of kitchen sponge and a spoonful of nursery-school paste. And anyone foolish (or desperate) enough to order “fish” tacos in a vegan restaurant really needs to sit down and take a long, hard look at the life choices he’s making, because in a universe of bad options, vegan fish has to be one of the worst.

And yet, Bar Bombon is drawing a crowd, because the space is beautiful, and the service is sweet and quick and charming. There’s a lure to Bar Bombon that I completely understand—this promise of healthy, murder-free eating, taco analogs that taste kinda like the real thing, and lots of margaritas to make it all okay.

But we all know better now, don’t we? We know how good vegetables can be when treated with love and respect and given a place at the center of the plate. No serious eater in this city would clutch her pearls over the thought of a vegetable taco or faint when faced with a menu without pork belly, foie gras, octopus and a fried egg on top of everything, so it baffles me to think why anyone would turn to fake meat when so many other excellent options abound.

Because this is Philadelphia. And we’re better than chick’n now.

1 star – Only go if there are no other options

Bar Bombon [Foobooz]