There’s No Faking It at No Bones Beach Club

The Ballard hot spot does vegan right by not pretending it’s something else.

On a dreary Sunday night, the new No Bones Beach Club (5410 17th Ave. N.W., nobones beachclub.com) in Ballard’s former Bloom space was perplexingly crowded. Perhaps the tropical tiki-bar atmosphere was a beguiling refuge amid gray skies and rain. Or could it be that Seattleites are increasingly hankering for more—and better—vegan options? That’s right, the kitschy cool spot with specials and DJ sets written on surfboards, hanging driftwood mobiles, and vintage Hawaiiana is in fact a vegan restaurant.

I adore vegetables, truly. But mention the word vegan to me and I tend to make like a veggie and blanch. A large part of my distaste stems from my annoyance with restaurants that try to make plant-based proteins taste like meat. I get that in the early days of the vegetarian movement, some duplicity may have been required to get people to try things, but I think our culinary culture—particularly in Seattle—has outgrown those needs.

I wasn’t expecting No Bones Beach Club to be the place to prove that it indeed has. It started with the eggplant fries (from the Bar Snacks part of the menu), which are better than those at Poppy (Poppy, I still love you). They’re battered in rice panko, which produces a crust to die for yet allows the warmth and sweetness of the yielding eggplant to emerge.

Under Soup and Salad, the Northwest Swell Salad is a diverse and balanced orchestration of several lettuces, diced tomato, red cabbage, and then, for optimal flavor and texture, curried cashews, smoked eggplant bits, and dried cherries. It’s an excellent prototype of everything a salad should be, but we went with the $3.50 add-on of blackened tofu anyway (tempeh and avocado are other options). I am not a tofu lover, and I’ve tried it in every incarnation possible. The only type I can tolerate is either fermented or extremely firm. In this case it’s the latter, blackened and kicked up with a jerk-like smattering of spices. I can honestly say I went out of my way to eat several slabs of it. Oh, and you can get half-orders of all the salads—which we did, and it was still huge.

The salad that didn’t fare well was the Caesar. And here’s where I get back on my soapbox about pretending. What makes a Caesar good, or at least what makes it a Caesar, has a lot to do with the parmesan cheese and the anchovy flavor, neither of which are possible with a vegan recipe. The restaurant also added spinach and arugula to the traditional Romaine, further muddying the salad’s identity. Also, where were the croutons? Surely you can make vegan versions. This was essentially a mixed green salad. Why call it otherwise?

When I saw jackfruit flautas on the menu under Yummies (aka entrées), my heart beat a little faster. I love the often-misunderstood light-yellow fruit with a slightly fibrous flesh, a funky smell, and a taste somewhere between lychee, banana, and pineapple (though not nearly as sweet and beloved as any of these) that comes in a big, ugly, green-pimpled shell. That this restaurant was willing to take it on impressed me instantly—as did the actual preparation. Inside the crispy fried flute-shaped flautas, chunks of canned jackfruit are marinated and cooked; the marinade is proprietary, but I detected some kind of citrus flavor. It took me a few bites to get acquainted with the texture of canned jackfruit, but I see why it might work better in this preparation than fresh as it’s softer and less chewy—better for a flauta filling. The Mexican profile of the dish is brought forth with fire-roasted chiles, chao cheese (tangy and made from fermented tofu), tomatillo avocado salsa, and cashew cream.

I also thoroughly enjoyed the heart-of-palm and parsnip cakes, three filling mounds that have the vegetal brine of heart of palm and the delicate kiss of sweetness that a parsnip imparts. That sweetness is coached forward by the addition of a bright pool of mango gastrique.

The main Yummy that didn’t win me over was what our server (and other servers I overheard) described as No Bones’ most popular dish, the beer-battered avocado tacos. Though the avocados are fried, I found them still too large and mushy inside the soft taco. A harder-working batter, like the one on the eggplant fries, along with smaller chunks of avocado, might make this dish more palatable to me. Instead, accompanied by creamy cilantro coleslaw and a creamy chipotle aioli, it makes for a wet and pasty experience.

My only other beef (no pun intended) with the dishes is the way they’re plated and garnished: pretty much identically, on the same bed of greens and finished with the same dice of tomatoes, shredded carrots, and cabbage. It takes away from each entrée’s uniqueness. And given how this restaurant is truly thinking outside the box, it feels at odds with the rest of the experience.

But all was made right by an amazingly moist vegan brownie served with coconut “ice cream,” a salty, slightly bitter hot fudge sauce, and coconut whip. No one would ever guess it’s vegan, including my 8-year-old, who licked the plate clean.

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