Dirt Candy officially launched brunch service at their Lower East Side space. We dropped by during the soft open, and not surprisingly, it was doing brisk business. There was a nice, neighborhood feel to the place, despite the slick, new relocation, with small groups and families enjoying the brunch, including Bob Tuschman of the Food Network!
The menu, as expected, features traditional brunch fare with a seasonally-driven, vegetarian twist. You can choose from corn french toast, green huevos and no ham, zucchini pancakes, carrot granola, omelette with a spicy cilantro radish filling and a “canadian cracker” waffle with cheddar and roasted tomatoes. Even brunch libations get the vegetable treatment. You can order a “bloody carrie,” which has grilled carrot in it, or a yellow pepper mimosa, which utilizes real yellow pepper juice as a mixer.
If you’re feeling more lunch than brunch, there are several hearty veggie sandwiches you can choose from–the greens sandwich, which consists of various stir-fried greens in two giant slabs of focaccia bread, a smoky beet sandwich that apparently resembles pastrami, a cabbage and avocado with kimchi option, and an intriguing spinach ramen salad.
The way to go here is to share a brunch dish, a lunch sandwich, and the corn french toast as a dessert. This is one square meal that you won’t forget!
86 Allen St (between Broome and Grand St)
New York, NY 10002 (212) 228-7732
Dirt Candy is one of those rare vegetarian restaurants that have broad appeal. No offense to Quintessence or Caravan of Dreams, but you aren’t surrounded by really granola people who would probably kill you if you ever mentioned the word meat in their presence. The atmosphere at Dirt Candy is much more inviting and inclusive, because the focus is on cooking delicious and creative vegetable dishes for everyone. I’ve come down with a case of food faddism fatigue recently, having been underwhelmed by a lot of overhyped restaurants pumped up as the Next Big Thing, but the cooking at Dirt Candy snapped me out of it. It was one of those rare dinners that I kept thinking about days after because I was so surprised and impressed by the technique. For a restaurant to hold people’s attention with just vegetables for the entire dinner, time and time again, really says something about chef Amanda Cohen’s talent.
The menu is a bit vague in that items reference a vegetable but not a specific dish. For instance, the options for appetizers were listed as follows: Mushroom!, Cucumber!, Tomato!, Cabbage! There is a brief description for each item, but for the most part you still don’t know what to expect from your meal, which is part of the fun. Basically choose whatever vegetable you are in the mood for and just go with it. Cat and I were in a Tomato!, Mushroom! and Broccoli! kind of mood, and we’re always down for some great hush puppies. I noticed how there wasn’t an exclamation point after Jalapeno Hush Puppies on the menu. That’s because you don’t really need to be in a specific mood to eat them, they’re good all the time.
The jalapeno hush puppies definitely lived up to the hype. What I liked about them is how I could really taste the gritty cornmeal in the batter, because oftentimes hush puppies are relegated to doughy mush. It was perfectly fried with great texture, and the maple butter was like icing on hush puppy cake. Our waitress brought out a plate of focaccia bread and olive oil, which surprisingly turned out to be pretty addicting as well.
The impressive Tomato appetizer was the dish I couldn’t stop thinking about long after dinner was over. When it arrived, I was pretty amazed by how the tomato had been visually manipulated to look like a cherry fruit tart. Biting into it, you expect flavors similar to its sweet and fruity inspiration, but they were much more complex than that. Cohen’s culinary dexterity really came through with the feta cheese–somehow it had been smoked and transformed into a delicious, Gouda-like variety. I thought this was smart to do, because otherwise the flavors would have tipped the balance into dessert rather than savory appetizer territory.
I didn’t particularly love the Mushroom dish, although I did respect the creativity behind it. The dish was broken down into several components–on one corner there was a cube of portobello mousse that was to be spread across pieces of crispy, truffled toast. There were also slices of mushroom that stayed pretty true to their pure form, no visual sleight of the hand here. To offset the intense and earthy flavors of the mushroom, some pear and fennel compote was available to sweeten things up a bit. I didn’t particularly like the texture of the mousse. I expected something like pate in consistency but it was difficult to spread on the toast. And combining everything together had an almost ordinary effect–I felt like I was eating slightly sweetened mushroom on toast and nothing more.
When the Broccoli entree came out, I just wanted to laugh. It was a very literal and playful interpretation of the “smoked broccoli dog” description on the menu. Imagine two large pieces of broccoli nestled inside a bun like a hot dog. I thought the sauce used on the broccoli was incredible, but at the end of the day, I would not choose this over a meat version.
I was a little nervous when it came time for dessert. You know how you watch Iron Chef and a contestant tries to be creative and makes some strange vegetable ice cream that the judges hail as innovative but you know they secretly think it’s disgusting? That’s how I imagined the vegetable-based desserts to be at Dirt Candy. I was tempted to order the safest sounding thing on the menu, which happened to be Popcorn Pudding, but we decided that would be lame and ordered the Celery Cheesecake Roll. The flavors of the celery in the ice cream paired extremely well with the peanut filling, which in hindsight doesn’t surprise me since dipping celery in peanut butter has always been a popular pastime. And the candied grapes served off to the side were like crispy crack. This was another dish that kept me thinking–did I really just eat a celery dessert and totally love it? How did this happen? How did Cohen exploit the flavors in vegetables to make them dessert friendly?
Dirt Candy is tiny, which also explains why the restaurant is continually booked, so I’d advise that you go in a group of 2 or 4. If you’re looking for a unique dining experience that actually includes good food, than a vegetarian meal at Dirt Candy is a must. No gimmicks of eating in the dark or in an art cube, it’s all about the food here. And if you actually are vegan out of principle, you can request a vegan version of anything on the menu. All are welcome here, the only requirement being a sense of culinary adventure!
— Dirt Candy 430 E. 9th St. New York, NY 10009 (212) 228-7732