Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Dinner | Dirt Candy

A couple weekends ago, I was joined by Christine and her two friends, Nicole and Sara, for an early dinner at Dirt Candy, the vegetable restaurant over in the East Village.

After having gone to the restaurant's comic cookbook launch party last month and sampled some delicious hors d'oeuvres, I knew I had to see for myself what kind of vegetable wonderland Chef Amanda Cohen had over at her restaurant.

I knew from reading the few "chapters" in the cookbook that the place was small -- and it really was. But it wasn't the kind of overcramped small, it was the cozy and intimate kind of small.

I love the frosty lacquered tables and walls in contrast to the textured walls (like a fancy cardboard/cork). There's also a subtle pink glow of uplighting throughout the restaurant which plays into the restaurant's logo design -- a pink and white candy swirl growing from the dirt! :)

The menu is served on miniature clipboards -- the current season's menu (for us, the "Autumn" menu) as well as "The Wine Safari" -- which noted the story behind the restaurant's moniker and mission. As Chef Cohen sees vegetables are "candy from the dirt," she wants her guests "to have fun and be surprised at how good they can be."

We started off with a bottle of sparkling rosé from Italy produced by Lamberti. It was crisp with a little sweetness and bubbles tickling our palates.

Flatbread for the table, served with extra virgin olive oil.

We started with something from the snack section -- jalapeño hushpuppies served with maple butter. A Southern-inspired treat, hushpuppies are essentially deep-fried cornmeal batter, and this version at Dirt Candy had jalapeños mixed inside it. Not only were these nuggets of cornmeal fried to a savory crisp, they had a big kick to them from the peppers. The maple butter made them that much better, adding a sweet creaminess to them. These are great for sharing among the table.

Since there were eight total dishes available on the menu (four appetizers and four entrées), we decided to share each of the four appetizers and three entrées so we could each get a taste of everything.

The first of the appetizers was tomato -- a tomato cake over smoked feta wrapped with cherry tomato leather and served with spring herb purée (identical ingredient-wise to the one from the cookbook launch party) . The tomatoes in the cake were really refreshing and juicy, while the leather surrounding had an interesting contrast to the flesh of the glistening tomatoes (kind of like a thicker fruit roll-up). The feta gave the dish a little more dimension of flavor, attributable to its creamy smokiness. Together, it had a similar consistency to smoked salmon on a bagel, only with no fish or any carb overload. Overall, I thought this was really well done.

Next up, we had the cabbage -- Chinese kohlrabi salad, purple cabbage wontons, and Sichuan walnuts. As the menu isn't explicitly meant for sharing, this dish was probably the hardest to share among our group of four. I didn't really understand the composition of this dish at all, but to be fair, it'd probably best be eaten by one or two people -- not five. It was essentially a shredded turnip salad with a little crunch.

This next appetizer was one of my favorites of the evening. It was the mushroom -- portobello mousse with truffled toast and pear-fennel compote. The portobello mousse was pretty much a paté that we spread over the truffled toasts, topping it off with the pear-fennel compote and some marinated mushrooms. The earthiness from the essence of truffles on the toast brought out the natural flavors of the mushrooms, while the compote added a little sweet-and-salty flair to it. Highly recommended, especially if you love mushrooms as much as I do!

The first of the main courses was corn -- stone ground grits with corn cream, pickled shiitakes, huitlacoche (i.e., corn mushroom or "Mexican truffles"), microcilantro, and tempura poached egg, making for another favorite. The tempura poached egg alone sold me over before I could even taste the creamed corn grits. Its exterior was delicate and crunchy, yet once you bit into it, the egg white was soft and silky, the yolk nice and runny. The grits were creamy with the richness from the corn and huitlacoche. Definitely order this if you're at Dirt Candy!

One of the other entrées we ordered was the chard -- chard gnocchi with grilled chard, garlic granola, and drunken fig jam. The garlic granola was perfect, and the fig jam nice and tart. The essence of the chard was captured well in the gnocchi, and the texture was soft and creamy, slightly thicker than whipped butter. While the rest of our party really enjoyed it, it was a tad bit cheesy for me. But then again, can be a really cheesy pasta, so at the end of the day, it's ultimately personal preference on cheesiness.

Last of the entrées was the cauliflower -- a vegetarian take on "fried chicken and waffles" which had buttermilk battered cauliflower and pickled cauliflower with waffles, horseradish, and wild arugula. It was shocking the power that the fried cauliflower stood against fried chicken -- it was surprisingly filling and meshed well with the horseradish dressed waffles. It was fried to a well-browned crisp, and the cauliflower itself was snappy in taste.

For dessert, we decided to share two of the most interested ones. This first one was the rosemary eggplant tiramisu -- grilled eggplant with rosemary cotton candy and mascarpone. Now I don't know about you, but I have never believed in the eggplant. For me, the texture can be boggling, the taste can be unsettling, and the way in which it is cooked can drastically affect how it tastes. So imagine my shock when I saw that not only was eggplant on the menu, but as the focal ingredient in a dessert! However, as we were in a vegetable-focused restaurant, that meant being open-minded and up for trying atypical things, just like this. So we did it, and it was far from what I was expecting. It was a pretty yet savory dessert -- the eggplant was delicate and tasteful yet deliberate, and the mascarpone dressed it up nicely. Did you know that eggplant isn't actually a vegetable but in actuality a fruit (more specifically a berry)? It is probably why it worked so well here. Plus, the rosemary-infused cotton candy added another dimension to this dessert, and it complemented the refreshing eggplant tiramisu quite nicely. Order this -- it is one magical dessert.

The other dessert we had -- the ice cream nanaimo bar with sweet pea, mint, and chocolate -- was another instant winner. It reminded much of the mint ice cream sandwich I had over at Matyson in Philadelphia this summer but also had its own distinct flavors, textures, and ingredients. With Canadian origins from the city of Nanaimo, British Columbia, a nanaimo bar is a no-bake cookie that consists of a wafer crumb-based layer (i.e., lowest layer) topped by what usually is a light vanilla or custard-flavored butter icing (only here it is mint and sweet pea flavored) and covered with melted chocolate made from chocolate squares (i.e., the top layer). This dessert was refreshing due to its minty freshness yet sweet and delectable from its chocolate-savvy sandwiching layers. Just from the two desserts we sampled, one thing was for sure -- Dirt Candy sure knows how to know make some kickass, original desserts with focal ingredients from the fruit and vegetable families.

Findings: Overall, I was a bit underwhelmed with my visit to Dirt Candy -- perhaps it's because I've been to vegetable-centric restaurants like the shojin-focused Kajitsu and the now-shuttered Ubuntu in Napa where my palate took well to their menus and resulting cuisine. While there were some notable winners (mushroom with truffled toast, corn with tempura poached egg, and each of the desserts), I wasn't particularly impressed or blown away by the other desserts as much as I had thought I would be. The menu seemed a little limited in each meal category (about four or so choices within each), but given the intimate size of the restaurant, I could see why a limited menu is more pragmatic.

I don't think it was because the food wasn't good -- the techniques, quality of ingredients, and plating were top-notch -- but rather that of personal preference when it comes to my palate. A lot of what was on the menu didn't really sit well with me -- the cheesiness of these dishes makes me want to wish I had opted for the vegan option so I couldn't enjoyed those dishes a little more. My own fault, I know, but I also felt that the menu was a little bit on the pricier side, especially when I left still hungry. However, considering we shared about three appetizers, one snack, three entrées, and two desserts (less than the typical, recommended three-courses per person), that may have explained why. Not all of the dishes were friendly for sharing, which made eating/splitting on the more conservative end.

All in all, I think it's an exciting place to be to see how vegetables can really be showcased as the headliner in each dish (even the dessert, which I really have to admit was super impressive -- similarly mentioned in The New York Times about Blanca this week). Go in with an open mind and a forgiving palate (you may come across things you're not totally crazy about) -- you may leave with a fonder appreciation of "dirt candy" from Dirt Candy.

Price point: $12-13 for each appetizer, $6 for each snack, $18-19 for each entrée, and $11-12 for each dessert.

--October 6, 2012

Dirt Candy
430 East 9th Street
New York, NY 10009

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