Dirt Candy, NYC

February 17, 2011

“What is dirt candy? Vegetables, of course. When you eat a vegetable you’re eating little more than dirt that’s been transformed by plenty of sunshine and rain into something that’s full of flavor: Dirt Candy. It’s also the name of my restaurant, which opened in October, 2008.”  This is how Amanda Cohen starts the website/blog for her Dirt Candy, now the top-rated vegetarian restaurant in the New York Zagat. After being the first vegetarian chef on Iron Chef, she is becoming a celebrity. So Linda and I were looking forward to some interesting cuisine when we went for dinner on February 4, 2011.

The entryway deep in the East Village is not imposing, but there is a welcoming ambience.

We increased the average age by quite a few years when we entered the small dining room. My immediate neighbor had not yet reached her first birthday. Everyone seemed to be having a good time. There are only twenty seats, but they usually turn over at least twice each evening. A good fresh foccacia and herbed olive oil were put on the table.

We ordered glasses of 2009 Beast Semillon, Columbia Valley and a
Jalapeño Hush Puppies
served with maple butter

These southern hot fritters were very good with green circles of jalapeño mixed into the batter. The maple butter provided a sweet contrast ignoring the regional conflict. 

The menu has four choices for each of appetizers, mains and desserts.  We made our selections and ordered a bottle of 2008 Zuccardi (Serie A) Bonarda, the most planted grape in Argentena. It was fresh and a little rustic.

Linda’s starter was
portobello mousse, truffled toast
pear & fennel compote

The portobello flavor came through nicely in the mousse cube and in the grilled sliced portobellos in the lower right. Linda thought the truffle flavor was in the mousse, not on the toasts. Sorry about the photo. The light level was very low and somewhat orange.

My first course was
steamed barbecue carrot buns,
cucumber & sesame ginger salad

The dough for the steamed Cantonese buns was made from three different colors of carrots, but the flavors were too subtle for me to tell the difference; the hoisin sauce, in which carrots were cooked for the filling, dominated the buns. The salad was good with noticeable sesame, ginger and vinegar flavors, but not out of the ordinary. 

Linda’s main course was
stone ground grits, corn cream, pickled shiitakes, huitlacoche,
tempura poached egg

The corn flavor came through, enhanced by the grits and huitlacoche, Mexican corn fungus, but the texture was mush. There didn’t seem to be much point to the egg except to show that she could do it. Its mushy richness wasn’t an addition.

My main was
buttermilk battered cauliflower, waffles, horseradish, wild arugula

The cauliflower had been smoked and coated with a substantial batter. This treatment may have made it seem like a meat dish for some, but it didn’t improve it for me.

Linda skipped dessert; I had
Red Pepper Velvet Cake
white chocolate and peanut ice cream, peanut brittle

This was nice, although a bit too sweet for my taste. 

When interviewed by Restaurant Girl last summer, Amanda replied to the question: “Has it been difficult or an interesting challenge to find substitutes for things like beef, fish and chicken?” with “It’s definitely hard to get that chewy texture, that juicy inside with the crispy outside. I haven’t eaten meat in a long, long time but I understand that that’s the texture people desire – who doesn’t?”

In another interview she said: “With the food, I think it’s really different than what you’ll get at any other restaurant. You won’t get your three components on a dish. Instead, you’ll usually get one component done five different ways.  You’ll also get really different flavors.”

I think these answers explain my dissatisfaction with our meal. With the cauliflower she achieved “that chewy texture, that juicy inside with the crispy outside”, but it ended up with little relevance to cauliflower. With the corn dish, she did bring out a corn flavor with the use of huitlacoche, even in February, but the texture was an unpleasant mush. The carrot dish seemed designed to mask the carrot flavors.  The most successful recipe for me, the Jalapeño Hush Puppies, simply brought out the fresh jalapeño flavor while taming it and putting it in a good vehicle, the hot crispy fritters. So, in the end, I think she is doing what she wants to do, but it isn’t what I want in a vegetarian restaurant. I eat meat and fish all the time and so I am not looking for that “texture people desire.” If you click on the five course titles in blue above, you will see Amanda’s amusing writeups of how she created the dishes. You can see that she is caught up in the technical tour-de-force involved.

In this category of restaurant, I’m looking for excellent fresh vegetables, presented with their own tastes and textures, enhanced, not in any way diminished, by the preparation. Nearby Kajitsu is spectacularly successful at this, even thought the latter part of its menu can be quite complex. Arpège, while not completely vegetarian, is the high temple of vegetable cuisine. I guess that is a difference: I’m looking for a vegetable restaurant, not a vegetarian one.

We wish Amanda well. She came out of the kitchen and served several of our courses to us and we chatted a bit. Like her customers, she seems to be having a good time.

The pace was just right. Everything about Dirt Candy was cheerful and the other diners seemed very happy, but I don’t think we will be back.


2 Responses to “Dirt Candy, NYC”

  1. John Rutherfurd Says:

    For great vegetarian food, suggest Varq in Taj Mahal Hotel, Delhi. Varq is not a vegetarian restaurant, but has a large selection of vegetarian dishes. Clearly one of the best innovative cuisine restaurants in India.

  2. Tom Says:

    I’m always puzzled why American vegetarians want their food to have the texture of meat.

    I’ve been quite happy eating a vegetarian diet for months on end in India, where the concept of a vegetarian diet having some resemblance to meat is, shall we say, foreign.

    Remember back when our mothers told us to eat our vegetables because there were children starving in India? Then you actually go to India and find out their vegetable dishes are so much better than ours that we’re the impoverished ones…

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