The morning bun at Bloomsday Cafe rises from the counter to greet me like a spring-loaded swirl of brioche optimism, simply begging to be chosen. I look away, pondering the squat raisin Danish or a more sensible choice like avocado toast or a chia bowl. But that sugar-crusted tall bun keeps catching my eye, its pastry coils bounding high above its paper cuff and tilting playfully my way.
Back at the table, I tug at my bun’s top knot, and a wisp of cinnamon steam rides out on a ribbon of laminated dough that unfurls, then quickly disappears, in a sticky caramel fingertip finish. This house-baked delight from pastry chef Sofiane Bellal is so delicious, as is the tight rosetta traced in foam by barista D’onna Stubblefield across the top of my macchiato, that I can easily imagine making Bloomsday’s cushy gray banquettes a frequent morning habit.
This is especially true on Sundays, when the historic Headhouse Square shambles across Second Street’s cobblestones come alive with the vibrant bustle and seasonal color of the weekly farmers market. Eat a “cowboy bowl” of sofrito-stewed butter beans and fennel sausage for brunch, or a gratinéed Croque Monsieur layered with creamy bechamel and a slice of house-smoked ham. (Add an egg to make it Croque Madame!) Poke through the natural wine bottle shop in back, with an amber glass of qvevri-aged Chinuri in tow. Listen to local bands like Low Cut Connie and Minka on the B-side-heavy playlist, and watch the automatic mister glide up and down the live moss wall.
It’s such a beautiful 50-seat space, the centuries-old building (previously Cafe Nola) revamped by Ambit Architecture with walnut and teal accents, a working fireplace, couch nooks, and whitewashed brick walls. I can hardly imagine a concept more carefully attuned to the sensibilities of 2019 than this soigné all-day cafe, from the small plates studiously rooted in local and scratch ingredients (from pastries to bacon) to the Rival Bros. coffees and progressive drink lists. There are even 70 acoustical panels dangling from crisscrossed sticks in the ceiling, proving that soundproofing can be artful, too.
The only catch: “All-day cafe” implies that there’s dinner, too. In fact, one could argue a project so enthusiastically built around its drink collection — not just the 60-bottle wine list, but clever cocktails and a well-curated collection of local beers and dry ciders — should hit a higher gear when the sun goes down.
Unfortunately, when I came to Bloomsday for dinner with an old friend (and former food editor), this kitchen could hardly even make toast. I could practically hear the sad horns go “womp womp” when I picked up a limp slice of “toast” slathered with charred tomatoes that was so flaccid, its fancy Cantabrian anchovies slid off. Ditto for the barely warmed blue cheese toast that buckled under fanned peaches and fennel. Its schmear of creamy labne muted the flavor of great Birchrun Blue so much that it was unrecognizable.
The tea-brined grilled chicken wings weren’t just tiny, their skin was simultaneously flabby and scorched. The ribs were coated in a coffee-miso sauce so treacly it stuck like caramel to my teeth. The housemade duck merguez had a mushy texture and, despite being made of breast meat, tasted livery.
There were a few high points: a spicy carrot hummus dusted with black sesame and crunchy watermelon radish, a creamy sweet corn panna cotta ringed by heirloom cherry tomatoes and the fun crunch of micro-popcorn. A warm crock of baked Elsa Mae, a Taleggio-style cheese from Honesdale’s Calkins Creamery, was also tasty (despite the rounds of flabby toast). The fresh-ground burger made with house-aged beef was another stand-out to savor.
But its pickles had issues, including one so overfermented that its squishy flesh just dissolved when we took a bite, giving such a potent vinegar kick that my food editor guest snorted with the nasal-clearing force of a Neti pot.
“This is objectively bad food,” she said, and I had to agree as I sipped a maddeningly lukewarm espresso, and we both noticed that even the the live moss wall suddenly appeared to be brown and dying.
“There are issues with the moss,” concedes Bloomsday co-owner Zach Morris, 38, who has a similar-but-greener live wall in his popular Green Engine Coffee in Haverford. “I’m a big believer that a space you dine in should lower your blood pressure a bit — and plants can do that. This [moss wall] ... is a work in progress.”
Morris and his partner, chef Kelsey Bush, 29, have the serene factor down pat — even the picture-perfect aesthetics of the menu’s small plates, which burst with vibrant colors, flower-strewn whimsy, and clever ideas. I want to order something called an “Emotional Support Hot Dog” because, well, who wouldn’t? The fact that this housemade foot-long weiner is more than a gimmick makes me even more hopeful. The lightly smoked link arrives snug like a porky dachshund in its sesame-speckled brioche bun, topped with purple kraut, sweet potato chips waving from mustard-colored dabs of turmeric sour cream — and it was unexpectedly fantastic. A satisfying blend of comfort, craft, and wit that shows this restaurant’s true potential.
But stepping up from an ambitious coffee shop to a full-blown restaurant with four menus, in-house butchering, baking, a smokehouse, a complete bar, and a retail wine shop is a major leap, fraught with umpteen details for novice restaurateurs to manage. There are good things to build on.
General manager Tim Kweeder and Morris, who was director of education for the Wine School of Philadelphia, have fully indulged their passion for natural wine culture by creating a must-visit destination for all who are curious about the genre, with an impressive range of stars, from Sicily’s Salvo Foti to California’s Kivelstadt, Germany’s Hexamer, the orange wines of Georgia, and even local highlights from Avondale’s Va La and New York’s Bloomer Creek. They portray the international scope of an increasingly polished movement that’s redefining — with ancient techniques, sustainably raised grapes, wild yeasts, and minimalist intervention — how modern live wines can be made.
Bloomsday’s food currently hits its stride best during the day, in no small part due to Bellal’s baking. His croissants have a tender, moist flake that skews more savory than most. But it’s countered by the sweet glaze of the raisin Danish, the chocolate brioche “drop" rolls oozy with chocolate chips and pastry cream, pistachio sticky buns, and also some desserts — a delicate hazelnut praline chocolate cake and boozy tiramisu — that were among the few highlights at dinner.
The soft sweet potato buns from Philly Bread were key to both the burger and the uniquely satisfying veggie breakfast sandwich, a crispy vegetable latke layered with pesto cream and an odd but fluffy scrambled egg as big as a softball. Even the toaster seemed to be functioning properly when I came for lunch, providing a crisp toast backbone for sweet fresh-made ricotta topped with a stunningly pretty combo of ripe tomatoes, luscious berries, Aleppo pepper, basil, and sweet balsamic.
I didn’t get quite the smoke or depth I’d hoped for from the smoked mushroom French dip. But a hit of cherry wood smoke worked wonders on chicken salad, pulled from whole birds and mixed with green goddess dressing, dried apricots, and pickled onions on rye toast — a sandwich I’d return for. The house bacon, cured and smoked from Primal Supply pork bellies, was fried to a shattering crunch. It sparked the late-season lusciousness of golden tomatoes from Heritage Farms in the BLT that would have been even better without the double-decker stuffing of a third slice of bread.
The polenta bowl, meanwhile, was another memorable composition, the earthy purple porridge of Castle Valley Mill’s Bloody Butcher grits swirled up around the sides of a bright-orange bulls-eye of roasted pepper-almond romesco, piled high with smoked carrots, charred green broccoli rabe, and savory streaks of vegan “demiglace” steeped from mushrooms and kombu. It would’ve been better hot (our lukewarm polenta was almost solid), but nonetheless showed the effort and vision Bush has to please a wide audience.
Mastering that breadth — and the logistical details to pull it off consistently over multiple menus — is essential to success in the all-day cafe genre. And we have several fine examples, from Hungry Pigeon to High Street on Market, Res Ipsa, and Talula’s Daily (not to mention Parc), that have become some of our most enduring and essential neighborhood restaurants. Israeli-themed K’far and Mexican-themed El Cafe are two more new entries near Rittenhouse.
Also key is finding a distinctive personality for each phase of the restaurant’s day. I’m already thinking of Bloomsday’s morning buns, heading back for an Emotional Support hot dog lunch, and then popping by for my post-work glasses of orange wine and funky Referend sour ale. But what about dinner? The planned addition of more large plates — like roast chicken or lamb shank — will surely help. But let’s just start with a crash course in toast.