Dirt Candy: Experts in Fancyness

When Alex and I went on  our honeymoon  this past summer, we were talking with another couple there, also vegan and on their honeymoon, and...

When Alex and I went on our honeymoon this past summer, we were talking with another couple there, also vegan and on their honeymoon, and were discussing the best vegan meal we've had in the country. I haven't been to many cities where the best vegan food lives, and one day I'm coming for ya Austin and Portland! (I'd clearly love to eat at Modern Love in Omaha, but when is Modern Love Brooklyn opening?!?!?!) The couple we were talking with are from Portland, have tried things we have not, and had traveled a lot more than we have, but the place they both said they had the very best vegan meal at, without any hesitation and in unison -- Dirt Candy. The place was kind of off my radar, not really mentioned much by vegans in my circle, and I'd only heard about it before them bringing it up by seeing it on Gothamist under "Best 12 Vegetarian Dishes" or something to that effect. So I figured we ought to go, while we are living here, and see what could make it "The Best" in the whole country in someone's well-traveled book. 


Our answer to that question, by the way, was Vedge. So we entered into the Dirt Candy experience with that as it's competitor. It's not that their concepts are very different. They are both very vegetable-focused, Dirt Candy maybe a bit more. They both do tapas-style plates, and they both do unimaginably brilliant things to vegetables that will make you rack your brain for what flavor you are tasting, much like trying to figure out how a magician executed their trick.  But before we declare a winner, the food:

The restaurant is in Chinatown, the beautiful sign covered entirely by scaffolding, which is why I soon realized I had walked by this place so many times without knowing it was there. It is extraordinarily fancy, and we dressed the part. I wore heels! I was a mess walking through the subway and the crooked pavement, and we most certainly got a cab home, but I looked, like, really really cute. I wore this black dress I'd intended to wear on New Years Eve but didn't, so I was quite pleased to bring it to life for the first time. And honestly, I don't really dress up ever so it was fun to wear this kind of costume and pretend to be rich enough to frequent Dirt Candy regularly and blend in. Of course I was seated next to someone in a sweatshirt and sneakers.

As we navigated the menu, we found ourselves sort of lost. It is so vegetable-focused that it's hard to picture the actual dish you will receive by glimpsing at the menu, with options labeled simply, "Mushroom", and "Potato." So we decided to go for the tasting menu and have them pick the best dishes for us. In hindsight, this was absolutely the best idea. You get a ton of food, including dessert, and you can't walk away wishing you would have picked different dishes or tried more or didn't try enough, or even worse, Hungry! There's a full bar, a cocktail list, and wines for days. Alex picked the kentucky lemonade and I got red wine. The waiter first asked if either of us were vegan, and said that all but two dishes on the menu could be made vegan. He made sure we got the vegan versions of all our dishes in the tasting, which is nice not to have to ask, or remember to ask each time, and know that you don't have to worry about anything weird showing up on your plate.

The first thing we were served was toast and oil. There were three pieces, but I forgot to take a picture until there was only one piece remaining. The oil had a smokey, bacon-y flavor. There was more oil than bread, so we were left trying to figure out a way to get the rest of the oil home with us so that we could eat it always and on everything. There's something amazing about just toast and oil, don't you think?

The next dish we were served was the shanghai shoots with some kind of brussel-sprout-like mini cabbage pickles on the side. The shoots were served with fermented black beans, which tasted a lot like sundried tomato. We had sort of forgotten the description we were given by the time we ate the dish so we had to look it up later. The flavor was nothing short of magical. The cabbage pickles were great, crunchy and vinegary as any pickle-afficionado/a likes their pickles.

The Korean Fried Broccoli came highly recommended. The menu description says "Basically, it's crack in broccoli form." That definition isn't far off. The broccoli sort of melts away, and you just get a crisp, clean bite of crunchy, salty and spicy all at once. Hard to resist, and definitely one of my favorite dishes of the night.

The next dish was "Mushroom." Mushrooms are my favorite, so I was psyched to get to try it. The menu description of it reads, "Portobello mushroom mousse with sauteed asian pears, cherries and truffle toast." The brown spheres are the mousse that you spread on the toasts, there are cooked portobello mushrooms in the middle, pear slices, and fried portobello chips on top that look like wings. I think this had great flavor pairings. I would never have thought to try mushrooms and pears together, but it was so delicious. I think I recalled this later as one of my favorite dishes we tried. 

Next was "Fennel", described as "raw and pickled fennel with fennel jam on a carta di musica", ie, cracker. There was shaved fennel raw in the salad I think, and some seared fennel on the cracker, too. Then it's topped off with fennel frond oil. That's the kind of thing I'm talking about -- fennel frond oil. You can't get that just anywhere! Brilliant minds at work, people.

Then came "Rutabaga". I loved this dish mostly because I know I would never have ordered it if left to choose for myself, so I was happy that I did the tasting and let the experts choose. This is literally a cake, layered with rutabaga jam filling. The cake is ginger and sage, and it's topped with pickled rutabaga that tasted so fruity. I. loved. this. cake. I couldn't decide if I thought it was savory or sweet, but I guess there's no real need to decide. Do you need to decide if the Smiths are post-punk, alternative or just British Indie to like them? No. The answer is no. You just like them. The cake is just crazy good, end of story. Also the nest. The nest was a coconutty bite with more pickled rutabaga, but pickled differently than the cake pickles. The nest was dope. Enough said.

When cauliflower dish was placed in front of us, I was so excited to see something with broth. I was craving some type of soup. This was so much beyond that, but certainly did the trick. Inside were "cauliflower dumplings" which we totally thought were gnocchi, and curried colorful cauliflower. They were all inside a papadum round that they fried so that it puffed up like a little papadum onion ring! The broth was curry-ful and there were saag and papaya chutneys on the side. This was very summery and beautiful. Light in that sort of hot-humid-night-food kind of way. Am I just making up terms now? 

We asked to have the broccoli dogs included in the tasting, but I think they were supposed to be included anyway because I saw a bunch of other people with the same food as us get them too. Quite literally a "broccoli dog", the dish was much heavier than the rest, with thick, homemade bread as the bun. I ate this with a knife and fork to give off the illusion that I'm a refined manhattanite enjoying a nice Wednesday evening with my husband, and not a knucklehead that stumbled here from Queens via the subway. Either way, I dug the broccoli dog, and loved the bun. Alex said his bun was dry, but I was into mine. The salt & vinegar kale chips on the side were flush with powdery vinegar that hit the back of your throat every time I took a bite. Maybe that was the only part of any dish I didn't like.

While we got our broccoli dogs, they also placed a giant spread of brussels sprout tacos in front of us. By this point, our stomachs were approaching capacity, but we powered through a few tacos after our dogs. The sprouts were just meh, and the toppings weren't especially exciting. There was guac, pickled onions, salsa verde, pickled jalapeños, radish slices and fried tortilla strips. I loaded mine with a little of everything, but mostly guac and we stopped eating the tacos after we ran out of guac. What kind of sophisticated socialite would eat a veggie taco without ample guac?

We each got to choose our own dessert. I like that idea, since no one really wants to share dessert, though we did try a little of each other's. I ordered the "corn" dessert. This was amazingly whimsical and delicious. The corn cake was sort of vanilla-cake-based with corn elements. The spheres are corn sorbet scoops and the popcorn is super spicy! I liked taking a bite of the sorbet with the popcorn together. I was super into this dish! Very Willy Wonka, if you will.

Alex picked the Chocolate Onion Tart. It came with a smoked almond ice cream and had some smoky onion bits mixed in with bitter cacao nibs. It was a very good dark chocolate dish. It may have been a little too wild for Alex, but I think it all worked very well.

Overall, I loved the tasting menu. Everything we ate was well thought-out and brilliantly executed. On the downside, I wondered why they didn't just make this restaurant vegan. If the theme of the restaurant is vegetables, including things like dairy and eggs is sort of cheating, isn't it? I know the chef would be more than capable of making these dishes fully vegan and fully delicious. Although all but two dishes could be made vegan, the vegan versions of the dishes were just the original dish with the non-vegan part omitted, not replaced with something else inventive. By the way, the two dishes that couldn't be made vegan were the creamed chard, and the carrot meringue pie. In the age of aquafaba and sweet maresas, we all are fully aware that vegan meringue exists, and any vegan worth their weight in cashews knows how to make creamed chard and make it great. So those are my main criticisms. The versions of the dishes we got did entirely what they were supposed to do, completely reinvent vegetables. I loved Dirt Candy and would definitely put it on the board for best places to get an amazing vegan meal in the country. I still feel the title goes to Vedge in Philly, but Dirt Candy does a great job coming in second! Let me know where you got your favorite vegan meal in the country in the comments!

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  1. I'll make sure I go to Dirt Candy next time I have the chance to visit NYC. My favorite restaurant in the country was much less fancy... Foodswings in Brooklyn!

  2. Ooooh, Vedge wins; I didn't see that coming! But, having been to Vedge and not Dirt Candy (aside from your post), Imma agree with you. That oniony chocolate thing? I'm with the hubs. Weird.