Charlie was a sinner.
"It's the first line," Nicole Marquis tells me, "of that novel you wanted to write."
I had no idea I wanted to write a novel about Charlie, and who is that guy, anyhow? ("Charlie is a mood," says Marquis. "He's a memory, a sordid memory. Charlie good and bad.")
He sure sounds like a handful. Not unlike that translucent Fata paper balloon that came to our table ready to burst with hot fennel steam - and our scissors-wielding, richly tattooed, pigtail-braided server not far behind.
Then again, I didn't know there was such a thing as a vegan cocktail lounge, either, like this one named in Charlie's honor (with a period "." to complete the sentence). And so, a few promising bites into my first meal here - the spicy-sweet crunch of a Korean-glazed tofu nugget; the bracing sip of a Manhattan crowned with an organic fig - I'm willing to suspend disbelief for a moment to indulge the considerable literary license Marquis has taken here.
There's a genuine interest in the bookish theme from Marquis, a former actress who can recite Shakespeare and wax poetic on East of Eden, one of many classics artfully posed on the bar's bookshelves, not to mention the namesake of that tasty fig Manhattan.
And no matter where you stand on the considerable pretension of this place, with its "chapter"-divided menu, Louis XV armoire, jewel-toned colored walls, and vintage movie clips projected onto a curtain behind diners on the tufted banquette, I applaud Marquis for her style and distinctive vision.
She's already the entrepreneurial force behind the hit vegan sandwich chain HipCityVeg. And converting the seedy old Full Moon Saloon burlesque club on 13th Street into this sultry chill-out lounge is an achievement in its own right.
But the underlying message here, with all its sin and temptation imagery, is more intriguing. In the often shrill and preachy context of the ethical eating cadre, Charlie's could be subtitled: "Vegans Just Wanna Have Fun!"
Not that the V-word is even mentioned. "Plant-based cuisine" is the operative term used so as not to immediately scare away anyone's omnivorous date.
OK, so maybe spiking your wheatgrass with a shot of Chartreuse doesn't exactly qualify as going berserk. But the cocktails here - mixed with high-grade spirits, produce, and fresh juice, infused with roasted grain, herbs, and Stumptown espresso - are creative and fun. (One exception: a peach disaster was so thick with muddled fruit and citrus piths it was undrinkable.)
With some serious cooks in her kitchen to execute some inventive small plates, Marquis has given Philly's growing vegan community its most ambitious drinking-dining destination since Vedge.
It doesn't yet show that kind of elegance or finesse. But Charlie's is meant to be a far more casual, stylish piece in Midtown Village's gallery of nightlife options, strong on low-commitment nibbles and drinks for a youthful crossroads where attention spans and budgets are not large. In addition, neither the opening chef, Michael Santoro, nor his successor, Max Hosey, has much experience cooking vegan cuisine.
But the two have nonetheless relied on well-honed culinary instincts to craft a menu of handsome little dishes driven by vegetables in poses that intrigue and, most important, usually taste good.
Tiny artichokes poached in saffron-fennel broth come in a bowl crusted with crunchy bread crumbs beneath shaved breakfast radishes. A thick stem of king oyster mushroom rubbed in merguez spice is memorable, scored and roasted to a meaty crisp over an aromatic skillet filled with curried cauliflower florets, tangy cherries, and soft dabs of fregola sarda. Tiny char-grilled leeks strike a Spanish pose over classic smoky, garlicky almond-pepper romesco.
The kitchen falls into the old trap of air-quote mock meat cuisine - to its disadvantage. I would have loved those lemony, creamy zucchini cakes touched with fine herbs more if they hadn't been called "crab cakes." The whipped tofu is better when I'm not comparing it to "ricotta." I don't think I'd ever like those smoked tofu weenies, which had the rubbery bounce of freezer-section prefab links, even if they were homemade.
Hosey is far more successful with the "meatballs" made from ground Gardein "beefless" wheat gluten tips, especially because they come with bucatini tossed in zesty tomato sauce with chickpeas. Speaking of garbanzos, Charlie's crispy sticks made from chickpea flour (a Philly trendlet) are irresistible bar nibbles. So are the creamy potato croquettes with smoked paprika aioli.
Some otherwise beautiful dishes still need tweaks: The elegant sunchoke soup, pureed and poured over intricate garnishes, was spun off-kilter with too much sweetness from Asian pears. The potato gnocchi with favas were dense and doughy minus the levity of the usual egg. I saw more sweet-tart raisins than barley in the mushroom-barley toast.
And imagine our surprise when that clear Fata balloon was pierced and we dove into the steamy saffron cloud of fragrant fennel and kale to discover, after one big burning gulp, it had been wildly overspiced.
Had "bad" Charlie made a cameo with an overdose of espelette chili flakes? Was he responsible for that mess of a brownie, too?
Well, "good" Charlie got the last word with a couple of far more lovely desserts - a delicate eggless tart shell stuffed with creamy coconut vanilla custard topped with blueberry compote; and a grape sorbet from Capogiro elaborated on by Hosey just enough. Topped with crunchy shavings of house-made lemon thyme granita, and set over shaved curls of fresh peach, the dish was like a frozen poem of chilly textures and deepening shades of sweet ripe fruit.
Charlie may have been a sinner, but at least he can cook.
CHARLIE WAS A SINNER.
131 S. 13th St., 267-758-5372; charliewasasinner.com
If you didn't know vegan cocktails were a thing, you will after a night of "plant-based" imbibing and nibbling at this sultry lounge revamp of a seedy old strip bar on 13th Street, reimagined with some literary pretension by HipCityVeg owner Nicole Marquis. The small-plate menu created by opening chef Michael Santoro and continued by successor Max Hosey is one of the more sophisticated vegan efforts in Philly, and strongest when avoiding mock meats. Charlie, if he ever existed, might even like it.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Our ricotta; "crab cakes"; chickpea fries; Korean-fried tofu; spiced cauliflower with royal trumpet steak; young leeks with romesco; saffron artichokes; polenta and nebrodini mushrooms; bucatini and "meatballs"; grape sorbet; blueberry tart.
DRINKS No animals were involved in any of the ingredients used here (not even bees), and it hasn't hampered Charlie's bar from producing a creative, appealing cocktail list built on fresh juices and infusions (from roasted farro to tobacco) that make drinking fun. There are a handful of decent beers (try the Deschutes Chainbreaker White IPA or River Horse's seasonal Hip-O-Lantern Imperial Pumpkin Ale) and affordable international wines by the glass, as well as "mocktails" that are flavorful (minus the booze) thanks to fruit and herbs.
WEEKEND NOISE Where there is Vegenaise and cocktails, there is "veganoise" - a 96-decibel din that makes conversation at Charlie a chore. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Dinner Sunday-Thursday, 4-11 p.m; Friday and Saturday, until midnight. Bar open nightly until 2 a.m.
Plates, $6-$10 (three to four suggested).
All major cards.
Street parking only.