Amanda Cohen, chef and owner of Dirt Candy (86 Allen Street, 212-228-7732), has been cooking for twenty years. It’s something she fell in love with — and into — after college. She recently moved her Lower East Side restaurant to a larger location; its new sign glows in the neighborhood of Chinese markets and eateries, sporting a trademark pink swirl in the word “candy.”
Cohen became a vegetarian as a teenager, and maintained the diet for almost fifteen years. But recently, the chef’s been eating fish and is more willing to try other meat-based dishes, a move she made in order to remain a contender in New York’s fast-paced food scene. She feels that most vegetarian offerings aren’t that exciting and wants to see what other chefs are doing. “I think actually with any cooking, you have to be a little more innovative,” says Cohen.
Dirt Candy maintains a love affair with vegetables. “I don’t consider my restaurant vegetarian — I consider it a vegetable restaurant. I really wanted a restaurant that was all about celebrating vegetables,” explains Cohen. She prepares vegetables in creative ways, and her menu reflects the idea that guests ought to try as many of them as possible.
Case in point: The brussels sprout tacos ($30) are meant to be shared. The dish pairs crunchy, slightly charred brussels sprouts with crisp lettuce wrappers and a bevy of garnishes, including smoked avocado, pickled red onion, salsa verde, tortilla chips, jalapeño crema, and cotija cheese. The trimmings and sauces become a bed of flavors and textures, ranging from creamy to spicy to smoky and piquant — you aren’t left wanting for any other garnish.
Even the house-made monkey bread, gooey, buttery, and salty, is colorful and distinctive; it comes in shades of green, white, yellow, and pink and is paired with a tangy smoked-garlic butter.
Korean fried broccoli ($8), from the snack portion of the menu, provides three to four bites for two people. The fried orbs of broccoli are burnished in a garlic sesame sauce, which tastes immediately peppery and tart, with a delayed but lingering pungent note from the garlic. Although coated in the sauce, the fried exterior of the broccoli remains crisp, while the interior of the fried shell is soft, with a hint of nuttiness from the sesame.
A tomato cake ($14) appetizer is served with smoked feta and tomato leather. The soft cake, topped with cherry tomatoes and garnished with an herb purée, has an overt sugary tone. The feta is indeed smoky and creamy; the cherry tomatoes are halved, seeded, and topped with kernels of sea salt. As the cake melts in your mouth with the feta, you’re still left savoring the cherry tomatoes, the grains of salt crunching away. The tomato leather has a sweet, chewy texture akin to the Fruit Roll-Ups you might have eaten as a kid.
Dirt Candy’s hush puppies, fried cornbread balls ($8) infused with minced jalapeño, are served with a side of maple syrup. A curry-spiced cauliflower entrée ($21) has a South Asian flair, with green pea saag, a sweet papaya chutney, and pappadam.
More:Vegetarian and Vegan