The Dirt on Dirt Candy
By Aida Toro
The Lower East Side in Manhattan is a placewhere you’ll find murals spray painted by one of a kind artists, bars, record stores, restaurants...you name it. Since Health and Beauty is New Face Fashion Magazine’s theme for May, I decided to take my belly to Dirt Candy in the Lower East Side. Located right on Allen Street, the locale is Manhattan’s only vegetable restaurant. Although I’ve never been to a vegetable only restaurant, the restaurant’s name and motto caught my interest. The motto is: Because vegetables are just candy from the dirt, and what better way to think of vegetables than a candy that will give you a sweet meaning to life...and not to mention, Health and Beauty.
The mastermind behind Dirt Candy is award-winning and James Beard-nominated Chef Amanda Cohen. Cohen opened up the restaurant in 2008 because she worked at every locale that served vegetables, worked almost every job role, and realized she was not going to move up any further in job positions.
“I had a lot of ideas about how to cook vegetables and I realized that no one was ever going to let me try them,” she said. “If I wanted to do this, I had to do it on my own. So I scraped together all the money I could find and opened the original Dirt Candy which had 18 seats, three-legged chairs (I couldn’t afford a fourth leg), and was about 400 square feet, including the kitchen and all the storage.”
Cohen’s inspiration for her dishes is her entire life as she makes way too many new dishes and changes them all the time, far more than is actually smart, because she is constantly experimenting and trying new things. Questions that arrive to Cohen’s mind are: What happens when you roast cucumber? Can you make a broth out of smoked cabbage? Can potato be served raw and still be delicious? What does celery taste like when you separate its taste from its texture?.
“I read cookbooks all the time, and eat out constantly — everywhere from Chinatown mall stalls in Queens to high end places on the Upper East Side — tasting what other chefs are doing,” she said. “And I’m constantly mining my past, recreating dishes I remember ordering as a kid at Swiss Chalet and trying to make them high end, or taking food trends from my childhood and seeing if they can be resurrected, like making a molten chocolate cake out of beets.”
Cohen was also the first vegetarian chef to compete on Iron Chef: America, one of the Iron Chefs on Iron Chef Canada, and a Board Member and Treasurer of Women Chefs and Restaurateurs. She also published her comic book cookbook, Dirt Candy: A Cookbook,which is the first graphic novel cookbook to be published in North America.
The menu at Dirt Candy changes regularly because Cohen and her staff want to take you on a quest to the extremes vegetables can offer your palate. With that being stated, my guest and I walked into Dirt Candy and we were seated by General Manager, Jackie Carson-Aponte. Carson-Aponte kindly greeted us and sat us down right at the chef ’s counter area that overlooks the kitchen. She then came over with some menus and served us each a glass of champagne because you cannot go wrong with something bubbly before ordering dinner. My guest and I decided on ordering two Vegetable Patches.
A Vegetable Patch consists of approximately five courses and contains a couple of Dirt Candy’s most acclaimed dishes. Of course, we were offered either a vegetarian or vegan option for the patches. We resulted in ordering the vegetarian option, as it was our first time at a vegetable only restaurant. The dishes in the patch were unique, tasty, and very filling. Therefore, I will name a couple of my favorites because I can just give every single item from the patch an amazing review simply because each one has its own special taste.
The first item we tried from our patches was a Korean Fried Broccoli with a Sesame Sauce. This was one of the items I’d say was finger licking good in my book since it was crunchy, tasty, and had a balanced spice to it. It did not taste like broccoli at all and is an item I can eat every single day if I had the chance to do so. Another item that came in the patch that we’ve never had before was the Shanghai Shoots with Fermented Black Bean Bagna Cauda. The Shanghai Shoots are baby bok choy leaves and the Bagna Cauda is a “hot bath”, which is technically olive oil gently warmed with garlic cloves and anchovies until the oil is scented, garlic is softened, and anchovies are dissolved and tamed. Bagna Cauda gave the Shanghai Shoots a one of a kind taste since all we had to do was dip the baby bok choy leaf deep into the dip. Once you pull it out, you’ll see the cream like mixture with some black beans on your Shanghai Shoot. Another one of our favorites from the Vegetable Patch was the Cucumber Salad with cucumber cake and kaffir lime cream cheese and Sichuan jalapeño mint oil. The salad was refreshing and perfect to consume daily, since cucumbers promote digestion, prevent headaches, fight cancer and so much more. The cool yet fresh kaffir lime cream cheese paired well with the moist cucumber cake rings as well as with the cucumbers themselves. I, myself, would have this as my dessert or snack if I don’t have it for lunch because it is just so addicting that I can go for seconds...maybe even thirds or fourths.
“I love the Cucumber Salad with kaffir lime cream cheese on the patch because it’s my newest dish and I’m always in love with what I made most recently,” said Cohen. “But if I had to pick a favorite, it would be the portobello mousse. That dish has been on my menu in one form or another since we opened 10 years ago and it’s the dish that won me $10,000 in a contest, which I immediately turned around and spent on fixing my air conditioning.”
An item in the patch that was interesting to me but also exquisite were the Carrot Sliders with special sauce on an all-carrot sesame seed bun. The fluffy all-carrot sesame seed bun resembled the taste of King’s Hawaiian Sweet Hamburger Buns.
The special sauce gave the carrot inside of the slider a heavenly taste, as it does for every burger. Carson-Aponte also surprised us with an item that was not part of the Vegetable Patch which was the Brussel Sprouts Taco station. The Brussel sprouts are tossed in Mexican bistek and served on a hot stone with iceberg lettuce wrappers rather than tortillas. The additions which are used to fill the tacos made the tacos one part Chinese sung choi bao and one part Mexican. The choices we were provided with to stuff our tacos with were: smoked guacamole, pickled red onions, cotija cheese, radishes, crispy brussels sprout leaves, tortilla strips, pickled jalapeños, salsa verde, and crema.
Of course, after stuffing our faces with the inventive vegetable patch, dessert was also included. The desserts that were brought over to us were the Cauliflower Funfetti Cake with roasted cauliflower caramel and cauliflower ice cream. As a major sweet tooth, I have to say that this was one of my favorite slices of cake in the whole world. The cake was scrumptious, sweet, freshly made, and just divine. You can’t even tell it’s cauliflower! The other dessert we had was the Mushroom & Chocolate Pudding with sunflower brittle. This dessert was what you’d call the sweet and salty ending. The sunflower provided that salty yet savory taste and the mushroom provided a rich and meaty sensation in your mouth. Here’s the fun part...the waiter drizzled some hot chocolate sauce on the mushroom top and it dissolved slowly. Inside you’ll find the delectable sunflower brittle.
Overall, our first ever vegetarian dinner was a grand success yet very special. Carson- Aponte and her staff made sure we were enjoying every single item that was brought to us and answered all of the questions we had about the menu. Aside from the hospitality and appetizing meal options, Dirt Candy has a couple of fun facts you’ll love. One of the facts is that Dirt Candy is the only restaurant in Manhattan that does not take tips because Cohen believes her staff members are professionals who should receive a living wage. The other fact is that all of the wine on the menu is made by women. There you have it...an innovative vegetable only restaurant with hospitality like no other where employees are treated fairly. If you’re looking for a place that offers an enticing menu that’ll get your taste buds dying to explore, then Dirt Candy should be a place for you to visit.