“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.”
The creations out of Amanda Cohen’s kitchen at Dirt Candy transform the art of eating vegetables. Never in my wildest imaginations could I have thought of the utilization of Rosemary as cotton candy, cauliflower as a fried chicken equivalent, or portabello mousse as the vegetarian answer to fois gras pate.
Dirt Candy not only transforms the vegetarian dining scene with its trendy, tiny ambiance, but the easily competes with the best, despite the lack of carnivorous options on the menu. Each dish brings new adventure, textures and unique flavors, leading me to question how I ever looked at vegetables before this meal.
My sister and I arrived at Dirt Candy, located on the border of the East Village and Alphabet City, promptly at 10:30pm for our reservation I had made three weeks earlier. It was the only time we could get before Leigh heads back to LA in 2 weeks. While always busy since it’s opening in October 2008, a glowing review by Pete Welles of The New York Times has made this small 8 table, narrow restaurant, one of the hardest places in the city to score a reservation.
We were promptly seated towards the front, next to the door and the heater, warming us up from the bitter cold. The restaurant is extremely small and narrow, without a bar or waiting area for the rare walk-in guest, or those who arrive early.
Unfortunately for us, the couple waiting for a walk-in table, were a bit drunk, speaking loudly, while trying to order a glass of Chardonnay. The woman bumped her bag into me a few times, creating a slightly uncomfortable atmosphere immediately.
Our wonderful waitress, Justina, quickly remedied the situation after I made a slight comment, by starting off our meal with the wonderful jalapeno hush puppies, we had already planned to order.
Crunchy outside, with a creamy cornbread interior with just the right element of spice, started our meal off right. The maple butter added a wonderful sweet and creamier element to the dish, which ended up being our favorite part. It’s the perfect “snack,” combining every element of sweet, spicy, crunchy and decadent. We easily gobbled these up, staring at our menu, deciding what to order next.
Ultimately, we selected one appetizer, Mushroom! and two entrees of Cauliflower! and Chard!. The exclamation points find their way onto the menu, giving a bit of corny, but extremely appropriate excitement to each dish.
I also ordered a glass of wine, asking our waitress for a recommendation. She was extremely knowledgeable, allowing for me to taste the wine before pouring an generous glass. She placed a plate of delicious, warm bread and olive oil in front of us.
We each tried a bit of the bread and oil, which was full of great spices and flavors.
Moments later the Mushroom! dish arrived, and we were blown away.
The waitress described the entire dish to us in intricate details, explaining that the best way to eat the dish was to take a little bit of everything and build a crostini. She explained that it was the vegetarian equivalent to a pate.
I picked up the crostini, spreading some of the mousse onto the bottom of the toast. Next, i picked up slivers of the portobello mushrooms and finally put a few pieces of the sweet pear and fennel compote. In one messy bite, I tasted all of the flavors of mushroom in various textures and flavors. The crunch and subtly of the truffle toast hits you initially. Next, the creaminess of the portobello mousse, followed by the salty taste. Finally you get the slivers of portobello and sweet flavor of the compote.
Justina, our waitress, came over in the middle of our eating, after having noticed we ran out of truffle toast, offering to bring more over. We smiled and thanked her greatly, as we then prepared more crostini, fishing off the dish.
Leigh tried putting some of the maple butter from the hush puppies onto the truffle toast, which turned out to be a total winner. Improvising at its finest.
Next, we dug into the Cauliflower! dish, which is Dirt Candy’s play on chicken and waffles.
Surprisingly, the least interesting part of this dish was the cauliflower. I found myself loving all of the other components of the dish. The fried cauliflower, who was acting like the fried chicken component to this southern comfort dish, was smoked before being fried, leaving a weird flavor and coating on my tongue. I tried to get past the unusual flavor, but it was difficult. However, the waffles, horseradish crema, and arugula salad were awesome. Miniature pieces of fried cauliflower sprinkled the salad, giving off a smokey, bacon flavor. Leigh and I decided we can make millions with our new product “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Bacon!” if we learned the secret to the little pieces. The kosher and vegetarian market would go crazy. The horseradish crema added an element of subtle spice and heat, contrasting with the rich pieces of waffle. The waffle soaked up the flavors of spice and sweet from the arugula and apples, rounding out the entire dish. It’s just unfortunate that the extreme, intense smokiness of the fried cauliflower made that component almost inedible.
Our favorite dish of the night was easily the Chard! entree.
The genius behind this dish isn’t fully understand until one giant, complete bite enters your mouth and you fully comprehend the method to Amanda Cohen’s culinary madness. Gnocchi, Yogurt, Granola and Chard? The ingredients seem to be a terrible basket on Food Network’s Chopped, where contestants would complain about the difficulty of combining such flavors together into one wonderful dish. This was pure culinary genius. The pieces of bright green gnocchi, have a wonderful brightness of flavor from the chard. But then, the sweetness of the goat’s milk yogurt comes through adding an innate lightness and creaminess, almost like the best cream based pasta sauce you could ever try. Finally, pieces of crunchy granola with the subtle flavor of garlic comes through, making you question everything you have just eaten. The flavors are unexpected, surprising and harmonious. One you finish the gnocchi, you discover the grilled chard piled up inside, which is like a more flavorful, brighter spinach or kale type vegetable. Wilted with a light smokey flavor, due to being grilled, it combines perfectly with the sweet fig jam and creamy rich piece of goat cheese on top of the mound of gnocchi and grilled chard. I loved everything about the dish, and wished I could pick up a bowl of goat’s milk yogurt and garlic granola for breakfast every morning.
While feeling full after eating our vegetables, lots of vegetables, we knew we needed to save room for dessert. We debated over the Rosemary Eggplant Tiramisu and the Chocolate Beet Cake. Our waitress, Justina, ended up bringing out both. The Tiramisu for me, the Beet Cake for Leigh. We each tasted each others, realizing we liked our own best.
If you like tiramisu, then this dessert will blow your mind. The eggplant flavor is so subtle, with the marscapone and lady fingers giving all of the necessary elements to a traditional tiramisu. Rosemary Cotton Candy should be a fixture on more dessert menus. Rosemary has a wonderful spice, balancing the heavy dessert. Especially utilizing rosemary in such a light, whimsical way, like cotton candy, creates such a playful dessert. I loved this.
Leigh was kind enough to allow me to taste her chocolate beet cake. Leigh is indeed a chocoholic, and she loved her dessert, as did I with mine.
Instead of a molton chocolate center, a warm, dark red beet filling oozed out onto the dish. The sweet filling, added so much flavor to the decadent chocolate cake. The pear sorbet gave a contrast of texture, flavor and temperature, adding a cooling elements to the warm delicious cake.
As Leigh and I pretty much closed out the restaurant, we couldn’t help but already think back on all of the wonderful surprises of the meal. The service was impeccable, with a knowledgeable waitress that remedied what might have been an extremely uncomfortable meal with the horrible other patrons in the restaurant. We ended up laughing and having a great time with our waitress, without her being too friendly or uncomfortable. I ultimately ended up leaving the best tip of any dining experience I have ever enjoyed in NYC.
For vegetarians, and meat lovers alike, Dirt Candy serves up truly special, unforgettable food. It is definitely work making a reservation weeks in advance for a meal that you will remember for weeks and months to come.
Dirt Candy – 430 East 9th Street – New York, NY
Location: East Village, NY
Type: New American, Vegetarian
Perfect For: Girls’ Night Out, Date Night, Vegetarian, Celebrity Sightings
Reservations: Recommended via OpenTable
Favorite Dishes: Jalapeno Hush Puppies, Mushroom!, Chard!, Rosemary Eggplant Tiramisu, Chocolate Beet Cake