Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Dirt Candy

Dirt Candy has been on The List for ages, pretty much since it opened in 2008(9?), in fact. I've been clamoring to get a taste of Amanda Cohen's purportedly revolutionary treatment of vegetables (or, as she calls them, "dirt candy"). Reservations are not easy to come by in the 20 seat space, and typically require booking a month in advance. That's why, when Mackenna and I were looking for a dinner spot a mere two days out, I jumped at the 9:30 pm Friday reservation as quickly as I could.

And the subterranean garden-apartment space is, indeed, teeny. There are 12-14 seats at tables against the banquette and another six lined against the opposite wall, with just enough room between them for the servers to pass through.

The menu is likewise small, offering up but a mere 4-5 choices for each course. This theoretically should make the task of ordering far simpler for an indecisive diner like me. But without the crutch of "I feel like fish tonight," and with a list of entrees that all sounded delicious and different, I faced some difficulties. Nothing a little chat with our server couldn't fix.

Though I sound like a broken record, I apologize for the poor picture quality.  The light was very, very low.  Also, I am a terrible photographer.

Jalapeno Hush Puppies with Maple Butter
We started with the jalapeno hush puppies, which arrived piping hot with a side of softened maple butter. The hush puppies were a pinnacle of the form, the crispy exterior giving way to a steamy, fluffy corn interior.   The jalapeno provided a lingering heat, and once in a while, a real punch of spice. The maple butter was, as you'd imagine, delicious; entirely unnecessary for the exterior bites and not unwelcome for the fluffy innards. The house bread also served as a canvas for the maple butter, though I preferred dipping the focaccia-like batons into the olive oil, which had been strewn with herbs.

House bread with Herbed Olive Oil
I've had and loved the portobello mousse before, and would have ordered it to enjoy the full restaurant treatment, but my dear friend is an avowed mushroom hater (something I will never understand). It was between the red pepper soup and the carrot buns, then. Seeing as soup might be tough to share, we went with the buns.

Steamed Carrot Buns with Cucumber and Carrot Salad

I love me a good Chinese steamed bun, cha siu bao in particular, that spongy, airy dough encasing rich, sticky-sweet Chinese roast pork.  The sweetness Cohen coaxed from the carrots paid homage to cha siu, but was impressive in its own right, bright with hoisin and a carrot reduction.  The treatment of the roots within was inspired, as the carrots feigned meatiness.  The buns were dyed various shades of orange from the juice of the different carrots used, which didn't affect the taste, but sure was adorable.  

Yes, these carrot buns were delicious, but I could not keep my fork out of that little pile of awesome to the left.  This, my friends, was a crispy white carrot, cucumber, ginger and sesame salad, topped with carrot halvah.  Oh, never had carrot halvah, have you?  I'm really sorry about that, because this was one of the more creative, no-holds-barred delicious things i have tasted in recent memory.  (No, but really, I'm sorry I didn't tell you about this sooner, the carrot buns are apparently no longer on the menu.)  A definitely ate more than my fair share of the salad even though we were to be going halfsies (sorry Mack).  

Chard Gnocchi

Then there were the mains.  Mackenna went with the chard: chard gnocchi, grilled chard, garlic granola, drunken fig jam.  The gnocchi were light, if a bit on the soft side.  The grilled chard crunchy, buttery, delicious. There was a  thin layer of goat cheese sauce coating the bottom of the plate, which lent a lovely tang to the whole thing and perked it all up.   The fig jam felt awkwardly out of place, its flavor strong and overwhelming, and not really meshing with the other elements of the dish. As it appeared as a small pile crowning the gnocchi, it was easily cast aside (and eventually eaten separately, since it was quite good in its own right).  

Cucumber, Coconut Poached Tofu
I oscillated between the cucumber: coconut poached tofu, shiso galangal sauce, salsify and hearts of palm and the corn: stone ground grits, corn cream, pickled shiitakes, huitlacoche, tempura poached egg.  Though the corn was the thing that called out to me immediately - I mean, tempura poached egg, for fuck's sake; top that with pickled mushrooms and huitlacoche and I was sure I'd be there.  But in the end, I went for the cucumber, since it seemed lighter and brighter than the corn, and I was getting some corn (and heaviness) via the fritters.  I can't say I regret my choice, either.  The tofu seemed to have been seared prior to poaching, as it had a lovely golden crust on its topside.  The sauce was verdant, alive with the vague citrus notes of shiso, and kept the whole dish interesting.  The crunchy fried things, also, awesome. What can I say? I love crunchy fried things.

The food at dirt candy is a wonder to behold.  These are not dishes that placed on a menu as a thoughtless consolation to vegetarians, but a celebration of vegetables in their own right.  These are not meant to replace meat, or to substitute for it, but to draw your attention to the merits of vegetables as their best, most interesting versions of themselves.  

Dirt Candy
430 E 9th St (b/w 1st and Ave. A)
(212) 228-7732

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