In a room that looks like a Pinkberry crossed with a submarine, we are crunching on what may be the best hush puppies in the city. The puppies arrive piping-hot and are piled in a basket, craggy orbs with burnished, crisp exteriors and steamy, fragrant innards, shot through with minced jalapeños. We tame the spice with the maple butter that comes on the side; the sweet butter melts on contact, sponged up by the hush puppies. “So good,” we whisper to each other, because the room, suffused with a weird yellow glow, is oddly hushed. It’s all a little disorienting, not in the least because this is the only vegetarian restaurant I know that might demand a Lipitor prescription.
I am not generally excited about vegetarian restaurants (unless they’re Indian), because the food is often joyless, virtuous, and under-seasoned. While honest vegetarian food can be good, fake meat—the darling of hard-core veggie spots—is horrifying. Give me a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich or a white-bean and kale stew any day, but deliver me from “chick’n.” I don’t eat things I can’t identify, unless they’re lurking in a Korean fish offal stew.
Luckily, Dirt Candy is an uncommon kind of vegetarian restaurant—a place serving delicious food that happens to be meatless and has a way with the deep fryer. Aside from the silly name (per the website: “What is dirt candy? Vegetables, of course.” Oh, of course), the place is strikingly lacking in pretension.
To get to Dirt Candy, you descend several steps from the street and enter a closet of a space that seats only about 19 diners—be sure to have a reservation, because there’s nowhere to wait. The dining room runs right into the Lilliputian kitchen; chef Amanda Cohen manages with only one other chef on the line, and one server. Although the restaurant has been open for nearly four months at press time, the city still hasn’t turned on the restaurant’s gas, forcing them to do all the cooking on induction burners, a mini electric oven, and an electric deep-fryer. So for now, Cohen keeps the menu short and simple: There’s just one snack (those crack-like hush puppies), four appetizers, and four main dishes.
The room is sparely dressed in aqua glass and what looks like blond particle board; most of the materials in the room are made from recycled materials. The fluorescent lighting overhead casts a diffuse yellow glow that gives an otherworldly, altered-state feel. Apparently, there’s also an occasional disco light show—surely a first in a vegetarian restaurant. The fact that many of Dirt Candy’s dishes come in vivid, eye-popping colors only adds to the feeling that you’ve just eaten the wrong sort of mushroom.
If vegetarian restaurant fare often comes in khaki and beige, Dirt Candy deploys dishes that are saturated in color, shades as bold as tropical fishes or Michelle Obama’s dresses. Carrot risotto wasn’t my favorite menu item, but it was one of the most beautiful plates I’ve seen lately: Risotto cooked in carrot juice, instead of stock, takes on a velvety orange hue; it’s topped with curls of fried carrots and sided with “carrot dumplings,” which are formed into tangerine-colored, flat half-moons that look exactly like carrot slices. Bite into one, though, and you discover that it’s actually homemade carrot pasta—but with a thick chew, a texture similar to Asian fish cake. The whimsy and sense of humor in the dish are admirable, but the flavor is overly simple—sweet and vegetal—being composed almost solely of carrots.
Not so the grits. The buttery puddle of stone-ground cornmeal is augmented with sweet corn kernels, wilted watercress, and pickled shiitakes, garnished with huitlacoche purée and ricotta salata, and topped with a tempura fried egg. Pierce the crunchy tempura coating and the egg gushes creamy yolk. It’s corn times three—grits, fresh corn, and corn smut—plus the welcome acidity from the shiitakes and the richness and crunch from the egg.
On the appetizer side, the portobello mousse is almost good enough to make you give up foie gras—almost. It comes in a quivering, dense brown cube, made silky with cream and butter. Spread it on a crostini, along with some zippy pear-fennel compote.
As if to prove that this is not a health-food restaurant, the two salads feature garnishes like grilled-cheese croutons and deep-fried trumpet mushrooms. The Greek salad would be a tasty, if pedestrian, toss of cucumbers, tomatoes, fennel, feta, and olives, but it’s livened up with pickled onions, preserved lemon mayonnaise, and those wonderful fried trumpet mushrooms, which look exactly like onion rings. The green salad is enriched with small, toasty grilled-cheese squares and topped with a candied grapefruit on a stick—fun to eat, but oddly disconnected from the salad itself.
Of the small assortment of dishes, the only one that falters in a serious way is the parpadelle, which gets lost in its acidic tomato sauce. The roasted cauliflower on top would be good on its own, but seems incongruous with the pasta and sauce. The plate didn’t come together in the sophisticated and whimsical way the others did.
Dirt Candy also has a short, affordable wine list, with thoughtfully chosen wines from around the world. (The food is also relatively affordable—nothing is over $18.) There’s a rather eccentric dessert menu from Debbie Lee, formerly of Pong, which includes a caramel popcorn pudding that might have been good had the pudding been given time to set.
When I cook at home, and often inadvertently make a vegetarian dish without even thinking about it, I often wonder why “vegetarian” has to be such a big freaking deal. There are so many delicious foods to eat—only some of which involve meat—that it doesn’t need to be a matter of politics. We can only hope that the PETA-type crazies will take their fake meat and gruel elsewhere, and that Dirt Candy is the future of vegetarian restaurants.