430 East 9th Street, New York 10009 (b/n Avenue A and 1st Avenue; map); 212-228-7732; dirtcandynyc.com
Cuisine: Creative, sophisticated vegetarian
Veggie Options: Four appetizers and four main courses (made vegan upon request.)
Cost: About $35 per person, excluding drinks
There are still some vegetarian restaurants that specialize in macrobiotic bowls of tempeh and tamari, sea vegetables and tofu scrambles. I wouldn't send you on a date to one of those.
But a visit to Dirt Candy in the East Village convinced me that in the right hands, vegetarian food can be downright seductive. Don't expect health food at Amanda Cohen's restaurant, just because there isn't any meat. If you snag one of the eighteen seats at Dirt Candy, you're in for a decadent, delicious meal. The fact that vegetarians can safely order anything on the menu is just icing on the cake. (Or should I say it's icing on the kimchi donut?)
We couldn't resist an order of those donuts ($13), and were pleased to discover that they harbored real kimchi heat inside their crisp coating. Cohen makes the kimchi in house. The donuts are served with a salad of avocado and arugula; while we could have used a touch more acid in the dressing, we loved the nutty grilled ribbons of watermelon radish on top. The presentation may be polished (some might say a little precious), but this food doesn't shy away from bold flavors.
Don't skip the portobello mousse ($13). This cube of mushroom paté is velvety and rich. It's not just faux-foie—it has a deep, earthy personality that stands up on its own. I couldn't help but lick some from my spoon, but it's even better layered on crostini with ribbons of grilled mushrooms and a refreshingly tangy pear and fennel compote. Cohen pays careful attention to contrast; the mix of sweet, sour, and savory hits all the right notes.
The stone ground grits that serve as a base for Dirt Candy's corn entree ($18) are enhanced with fresh corn kernels and the liquid from corncobs and tossed with lightly-pickled shiitake mushrooms and huitlacoche (a corn fungus with flavors some compare to truffles.) The grits have some Mexican spice and great texture, but the star of the dish is a panko-battered poached organic egg with a cracklingly crispy shell and luscious runny yolk.
Cohen's parsnip gnocchi ($19) are meltingly tender, served in a silky cream sauce with soft shreds of root vegetables. The accompanying sour purple cabbage balances out the richness a little, while carrot cake crumbs emphasize the parsnips' natural sweetness and add warming spices. Dehydrated cheddar crumbs add salt to balance out the sweetness. You might want to share this dish—a whole plate may send you into butter-coma (or butter-nirvana?)
I won't deny that an evening at Dirt Candy is expensive. But given the neighborhood's high rent and the high cost of excellent fresh ingredients—as well as the care with which each dish is prepared—I think it's worth a visit. Especially if there's someone you're trying to seduce.