Dirt candy, the three-month-old East Village restaurant, is no ordinary tofu parlor. In fact, on the eatery’s website, chef and owner Amanda Cohen writes: “With Dirt Candy I’m trying to do a vegetarian restaurant my way. Most vegetarian restaurants are lifestyle-driven, not chefdriven, and their aim is to present healthy food that conforms to vegetarian principles, often by serving basic meat recipes with soy products replacing the meat portion of the dish…” Cohen’s East Village restaurant isn’t about pretend food. She’s not trying to make tofu taste like chicken Parmesan. She says simply, “I care about cooking vegetables.”
So there it is. In a city where people equate most vegetarian restaurants with dreary, soybased menus, Cohen, whose resume includes stints at Angelika Kitchen,Terra 47,Teany and Pure Food and Wine, takes the best of the earth (“candy” from dirt, hence the name) and showcases it in full-flavored, multi-dimensional dishes. She even employs butter and cream.
The space she’s chosen doesn’t resemble the traditional beige-on-beige color scheme one expects from a vegetarian place either.
Nine modern tables line either side of the narrow room; an elegant burnt orange banquette abuts one wall; and a border of illuminated pale green Plexiglas makes the patrons glow. On the night I visited, the clientele resembled a reunion of a bohemian girls’ school with all of the 18-seats filled by women.
The best way to dig into the dirt is with a “snack” of Jalapeño Hush Puppies ($6).The kitchen does a commendable job at frying, and the fritters arrive sizzling without a trace of oil. A ramekin of maple butter provides the perfect foil to the heat of the jalapeños while lending a touch of sweetness.
Fritters, hush puppies and dumplings play an important part in Cohen and pastry chef Debbie Lee’s dishes. Lee’s Ricotta Fritters ($9) is a playful dynamic of salty, sweet and tart.The little fried balls are crusty and tender inside and the green tomato marmalade they sit upon is intensely sweet—until it interacts with a sprinkling of sea salt on the fritters and then it’s an exciting mouthful. Delicate, silky, lemon-olive-oil ice cream adds a necessary tart note to the dish. Hardcore carnivores will forget meat altogether once they’ve tasted the beautifully plated Portobello Mousse ($13). A cube of the mousse, as dense and silken as foie gras, sits beside a tangle of sautéed mushrooms. A little pile of apple/fennel compote and brittle pieces of crostini to pile it all on, rounds out the dish.The tart, sweet, anise-tinged compote and a hit of mellow balsamic reduction heighten the components.
No one should miss the Spinach Soup ($11), as much for its otherworldly shade of emerald green, as its bright lemony taste and the way the soft little dumplings filled with smoked tofu break up the soup’s grassy flavor.
Cohen makes her own tofu. She’s even posted an “Ode to Soy” on her blog.The soy in her subtle Crispy Tofu with Green Ragout ($17) is to supermarket tofu as a homebaked apple pie is to Entenmann’s. It’s an appealing dish, the main player dense yet silken over crisp snow peas and fava beans, the buttery beurre blanc bright with the essence of kaffir lime leaves. Compared to an assertive entree like the Risotto with Carrot Drops ($16) though, the tofu is lackluster.
The risotto is a sampler of everything a carrot can be: blended with the rice it’s sweet and tangy; roasted into carrot “curls” it’s flavor is intensified with a bracing, nutty edge; as a “dumpling,” its color is nearly neon, and it’s taste is pure freshness. A sprinkling of Parmesan adds a welcome salty note. Dirt Candy is a restaurant where meat eaters and vegetarians can order side-by-side and leave feeling like they’ve experienced something special. Cohen is happy to accommodate vegans too. She tries to please patrons of all culinary ilk, even those on liquids diets that request their meal in a glass. If that sounds like you, stay home.The chef may not mind if you sip hush puppies from a straw, but the rest of us would rather not watch.
430 E. 9th St. (betw. Ave. A & 1st Ave.), 212-228-7732