Imagine a conversation with a friend that starts thusly: “I just went to this restaurant in the East Village. It’s down a flight of stairs. And it’s vegetarian — vegan-friendly, in fact! Oh, and they’re involved in some mess with Con Ed, so they don’t have any gas in the kitchen and are relying on induction burners and hotplates.” Sounds like the worst meal I could imagine, actually.
The reality: It’s great. Hell, even the restaurant’s blog is great. It’s there that Dirt Candy’s ethos comes across, as well as this fact, obvious to meat eaters out there: The best veggie dishes are made at non-vegetarian restaurants. This has been clear to me for a long time (and don’t get me started on vegans who boil broccoli till it turns gray and serve it with gummy brown rice). As for the name? Simple. Chef/Owner Amanda Cohen (who eats meat) believes veggies are the candy of the earth, and her genius with them made me a believer.
The starter “snack,” jalapeño hush puppies, made it clear this isn’t a health-food restaurant. Simple and fried, served with maple butter, these classic corn nuggets found a perfect balance of heat and sweet, oil and salt. Amazingly, for a carnivore like me, a spinach soup was even better. A shocking, verdant green and impossibly smooth, one bite and I understood the name Dirt Candy. This is what vegetables should taste like. A tangle of lemon confit and four intensely smoky tofu dumplings kept the large portion interesting, balancing the soup into a complex whole.
A main course of stone ground grits was nearly as unhealthy as the hush puppies, but even better. More corn pudding than the norm, it’s loaded with fresh corn kernels. A tempura-fried poached egg melds the whole together. It may sound like brunch but pickled shiitakes, micro sprouts and dabs of creamy Mexican corn fungus huiltacotche up the ante. The lack of actual veggies in this was made up for by crispy tofu (served to love like skin-on fish) with green ragout and kaffir lime beurre blanc. The crisp tofu, seared on the side made of bean-curd sheets, was miles ahead of the supermarket variety, while the Thai-accented butter sauce showed the chef’s classical training. But the star, again, was the green stuff: Brussels sprouts, asparagus and snap peas, a shade of neon green you don’t see even feet away from the farm would convert any confirmed carnivore or picky kid.
It’s surprising that a 20-seat restaurant — a pretty one at that, brightly lit, the walls sheathed in green glass and particle veneers — has a pastry chef, but my dish, Cake and Ice Cream #2, demonstrated a commitment to luscious, inventive sweets if not perfect execution.
The cake itself was nondescript chocolate, dry unless eaten with an intriguing sweet potato sorbet. And while by itself the sorbet was plain odd, it shone with the cake. The plate’s other frozen treat, a scoop of chocolate-chili ice cream was stellar in any form, the heat bringing out the intense, bitter flavor of chocolate from the very lightly sweetened mixture.
Whether or not you’re a vegetarian, you will enjoy Dirt Candy. And I think that’s what Chef Cohen’s going for. But you may want to wait till the gas is on and they’ll be serving Kimchi Doughnuts, whatever that means, and the rest of the abundance that grows from the ground, far too often overlooked.