A restaurant worth sinning for: Charlie Was a Sinner

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By Camille Kurtz, Copy Editor

Packed inside a narrow blue building closely resembling a phone box, Philadelphia’s Charlie Was a Sinner paves its way as an up-and-coming, chic bistro full of a definite “it crowd” that has the 411 on where to get its modern, classy cuisine. Oh, and it’s also an entirely vegan restaurant.

Charlie Was a Sinner is located at 131 S 13th Street in Philadelphia.
[/media-credit] Charlie Was a Sinner is located at 131 S 13th Street in Philadelphia.

The first thing most people think of when they hear the word “vegan,” or see restaurants touting themselves as such, is boring and unsatisfying food. Charlie Was a Sinner dismantles this stereotype crumb by crumb and lick by lick. In fact, I could have written this review without once mentioning that this restaurant is vegan. An unaware person could stumble into the fine eatery, have a delicious meal and walk out without ever realizing the meal just enjoyed was completely plant-based. And this is how it should be.

I don’t think the word vegan appeared more than once on the menu. Instead, words like “sausage,” “crab cakes,” “ricotta cheese,” “ice cream” and “whipped cream” abound. While of course these are all vegan takes on the classic foods, an unaware diner would never imagine that it was not traditional, diary ricotta cheese placed in front of her.

The dark and cutting-edge environment of Charlie Was a Sinner adds an element of mystique to the clean and polished dishes churned out by the kitchen. All food served “tapas style,” Charlie is a great place to forget your week-day worries with a few friends. I found the friendly wait staff to be dependable and always willing to answer questions.

As hard as it was to choose which small plates to order (Charlie recommends 2-3 per person,) I sampled the marinated beet salad, “Our Ricotta” toast, wild mushroom and barley toast, avocado toast, crispy tofu roll, artichoke frites, smoked cauliflower, potato gnocchi and the confit potato cup and mushroom. For desert I tried the chocolate pot de crème and the pear bourbon tart. As a whole, the food was exceptional and I would eagerly return.

Choosing favorites was difficult, but the marinated beet salad and the smoked cauliflower packed such a great punch of flavor while remaining so simple that they are high on my list.

Charlie Was a Sinner's beets are un-beet-able.
[/media-credit] Charlie Was a Sinner’s beets are un-beet-able.

The beets are served with crunchy and well-dressed radicchio in an apple horseradish vinaigrette and accompanied by buttery croutons and a creamy cauliflower panna cotta. But the beets are the true star of the plate. Hands down the best beets I have ever been so lucky to sink my teeth into, these earthy morsels are at prime freshness and rich with a deep citrus flavor that leaves a sharp aftertaste.

The smoke cauliflower is equally as well done as it is charred and then served atop a pureed cauliflower sauce with a golden raisin vinaigrette and sprinkled with Marcona almonds and golden raisins. The cauliflower is crispy and smoky and beautifully cut by the acidic sweetness of the golden raisins and then evened out by the satisfying crunch of the almonds. The play of textures in this dish is fabulous, a perfect balance of smooth and creamy to crunchy to chewy to soft and melt-y.

The “toasts” are also very well-executed. The avocado toast is accompanied by a habanero aioli, diced radish and red onion and tarragon. The creamy avocado is soon smacked with the brilliant spiciness of the aioli lovingly drenching the softly grilled sourdough bread. The ricotta toast is also a stroke of genius, with ample “cheese” to go around. The ricotta is actually made from whipped tofu, agave and lemon juice, but the texture and taste are so flawless that no one would ever know. Creamy and luxurious, the classic cheese and bread combo does not fail Charlie. The mushroom and barley toast is rich, creamy, warm and buttery, despite being vegan. The combination of barley and mushrooms is excellent as the two textures complement one another perfectly. On this particular toast, however, the dense mushroom barley mixture is slightly too much for the bread, which I found does not hold up as well in this dish, making it frustratingly messy to eat.

The crispy tofu roll is served with a dashi aioli, shitake bites and a chili relish. Silky squares of tofu are wrapped in a fried seaweed packaging and dotted with fried bite-sized mushrooms. The ration of fried to soft amid distinct Asian flavors is interesting and a good choice for adventurous diners. The artichoke frites, tempura-battered orbs of an artichoke and potato mixture are surprisingly tender, crispy, and piquantly sweet.

My least favorite dishes, to my surprise, were those meant to be considered “main course” small plates. While I found the confit potato cup and mushrooms to be creative, it is seems lazy as the mushrooms stuffed inside the hollowed-out potato nest are the same used for the mushroom toast. The potatoes, however, are cooked to perfection, the skin having just the perfect amount of crunch. The potato gnocchi, while in no stretch of the imagination bad, are bland and unexciting compared to the interesting plays of flavor in the other dishes.

The potato and mushroom cup missed the high mark set by the other flavorful dishes.
[/media-credit] The potato and mushroom cup missed the high mark set by the other flavorful dishes.

 

 

 

 

 

The deserts offered at Charlie Was a Sinner are decadent and rich. The chocolate pot de crème is served with rum bananas, cocoa nibs, and a coconut whipped cream that I would have in place of regular whipped cream any day. The chocolate was smooth and creamy, enough to fill any chocolate-lover’s needs. Firm, soft and sweet all at once, the pear bourbon tart, served with coconut vanilla ice cream, is a great desert for the non-chocoholics.

The service was excellent, the atmosphere full of camaraderie and the food not only giving vegan food a new reputation, but showing where elevated vegan cuisine is heading.  

Camille Kurtz can be reached at [email protected]