Restaurant Review: Dirt Candy

Dirt Candy
430 East 9th Street
(between 1st Avenue and Avenue A)
East Village, Manhattan

Vegiboys Rating (3.5/4)

Though Dirt Candy’s small East Village space rivals the size of a Manhattan studio apartment, the small, narrow dining room fails to deter the crowds; with only enough seating to manage about two dozen diners at any one time, the restaurant is never less than fully packed.

In fact, their waiting list that resembles those of Manhattan’s Michelin-starred palaces of haute cuisine. Reservations should be made at least several weeks in advance, and cancellations are quickly filled through a social media network of hopeful diners that follow their Twitter account. Walk-ins are impossible. With such a tight reservation schedule, dining times are carefully governed, with two-hour seating windows that are strictly enforced by the staff.

That all said, they squeeze their patrons into the restaurant quite comfortably. We were lucky enough to attend a recent seating, joining the diversely talented Gail Soliwoda, Joann Newman, Elyse Newman, and Ben Dolnick as part of their reservation.

We entered at 7:15, and were promptly seated at a table adjacent to the door. Despite the tight quarters, we never felt crowded at our table. The interior design is minimal, mostly relying on some modern lighting effects to create ambiance.

So it is not convenience, nor great design that keeps Dirt Candy consistently packed: it’s their food. The short, seasonally-updated menu reflects their name well (as a cute metaphor of vegetables as candy from the Earth); the dishes are all playful, creative, and fun to experience.

With a hungry party of 6, we were able to sample nearly everything on the menu. Most of the menu items revolve around a particular ingredient, which also serve as that dish’s namesake.

We began with two orders of their jalapeño hush puppies. Served with a generous slab of maple butter, the dough was richly flavored, crisp on the outside, and light on the inside. Though deep-fried, they did not sit heavy in the stomach (even when slathered with the delicious butter).

The Mushroom gave us a deconstructed interpretation of a bruchetta, with a fascinating cube of portobello mousse spreadable on toast, with a fennel compote adding just enough substance to bring all of the elements together.

The Carrot fell a bit flatter in its flavors, with thick, exceedingly doughy carrot buns (lightly flavored in a barbecue sauce), and a simple ginger salad. Though impressive to behold, the pieces of the dish didn’t hold any particular surprises, nor did the buns and salad form a particularly cohesive pairing.

In contrast, the Celery provided a delicious warm salad with king oyster mushrooms and cheese curds standing out as the guiding ingredients.

Moving from appetizers into the entrées, the Corn offered a circle of smoky grits with a center of creamed corn, shiitake and huitlacoche mushrooms, and a tempura poached egg (breaking the tempura shell to release the runny yolk gave the same satisfaction as cracking into a perfectly cooked creme brulee).

The Cauliflower used a waffle as the platform for a savory mix of horseradish, arugula, and battered cauliflower. The dish had the taste of a campfire; smoke filled the mouth with each bite. Though perhaps too overpowering, we do give them credit in not using liquid smoke; the ingredients had actually been wood smoked.

The Zucchini had also been given a hickory smoking, but less aggressively, allowing for appreciation of other tastes; a vegetable pasta was surrounded with nut-based meatballs, all topped with a smooth, sweet yogurt sauce.

As a final entrée, the Cucumber consisted of a slab of coconut-marinated tofu hiding tender hearts of palm and salsify root, all sitting in a pool of a galangal sauce.

For the desserts, we also sampled from a number of their offerings. Our party all agreed that though some of the appetizer and entrée items had been met with uncertainty, the desserts all exceeded our expectations. The Red Pepper Velvet Cake (the spice was very subtle) was deliciously matched with peanut ice cream and peanut brittle. The popcorn pudding was a small but satisfying parfait with layers of caramel corn, a thick whipped cream, and a sweet caramel pudding. The Ice Cream Nanaimo Bar surprised us as our favorite though: the mint brought an amazing flavor to the plate.

While most of the menu choices had been vegan, Dirt Candy does offer the opportunity to request a vegan-version of any dish they offer on the menu.

With our meal, we tried an array of beverages from their extensive wine and drink list. Brian and I both enjoyed the Beast (a fruity, wet white wine).

Our bill came to about $65 each, though even when factoring in our hungry appetites and liberal drinking, a Dirty Candy meal is among the most expensive in the NYC vegetarian world. Despite the price and despite the difficulty in securing reservations, the creativity from Dirt Candy’s kitchen exceeds almost any restaurant we’ve visited in the city (both vegetarian and non-vegetarian alike). Even when the overall flavors didn’t prove as vibrant as anticipated, we still remained impressed with the bold use of unexpected ingredient combinations. For that alone, Dirt Candy deserves a visit from every vegi-lover; the imagination present in the food makes the experience well worth the price.

Food (3.5/4)

Atmosphere & Service

Value (3/4)

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