Friday, April 30, 2010

Fruits of the soil.

On the Wednesday of my staycation, I met my friend Anica for dinner at a tiny little place called Dirt Candy. The candies in question are, of course, vegetables, those sometimes sweet, sometimes fresh, sometimes bitter, always tasty products of the soil. I love vegetables, as you well know, but I've been disappointed by the vast majority of vegetarian restaurants in which I've dined. They're usually all about austerity and making a chore of eating - which is a pretty horrifying thing to pay for, when you think about it.

But Dirt Candy (under the guidance of chef Amanda Cohen) is very, very different. It's vegetarian, yes - and they'll go vegan if you like - but it's the opposite of austere, boring or punishing. Our starter is a perfect example of the spirit of the place: jalapeno hush puppies, served with whipped maple butter. The hush puppies were lovely. Piping hot and studded with bits of hot pepper, they were made most delicious by the sweet, round flavor of the butter, which melted and pooled on contact. (We actually sneaked the butter off the plate and held onto it for the rest of the meal. I have resolved to serve as many things as possible with maple butter in future.)

Our waitress recommended we each get both an appetizer and a main course; to tell the truth, we would have been fine forgoing at least one of the four dishes, but it was nice to taste so many things. I started with the barbecue carrot buns, which were served with a salad of cucumber, sesame and ginger. The salad was actually my favorite part of the dish; the buns, while tasty, were a bit under-seasoned and not quite, well, barbecue-y enough.

Anica's starter, on the other hand, was magnificent. A root vegetable salad served with greens, it had pumpkin as well as acorn and butternut squash. The croutons were flavored with blue cheese, and the crispy things were pepitas, pumpkin seeds coated with chickpea flour and fried. The dressing on this was insanely delicious - I don't buy bottled dressing, but if the chef were to bottle this, I'd spring for a whole case.

My picture of Anica's main was beyond blurry, so you're just going to have to trust me when I tell you that it was a plate of parsnip gnocchi served with a creamy root vegetable sauce and topped with carrot cake crumbs. It was tasty, but a bit on the sweet side.

We both loved my main, which featured all kinds of corn goodness: grits, huitlachoche (a delicious fungus that infects corn in a most wonderful way) and creamy corn, topped with pickled shiitakes (Yay, pickles!), an egg poached and fried in tempura batter, and a bit of salted ricotta. I. Was. In. Heaven. The egg and mushrooms in particularly made the dish for me.

Finally, dessert. All through April, the restaurant ran a special on dessert - order one, get one free! Since there are only four desserts on the menu, full-stop, we were able to try a bit of everything! Clockwise from the top, we have pea and mint ice cream cake, red pepper red velvet cake, caramel pudding with caramel popcorn, and fennel funnel cake. The pudding won the day, by a long shot, but the red velvet cake was really interesting, too.

All in all, a wonderful meal. This is vegetarian cooking at its richest and most generous. No shortage of creativity, flavor or texture to be found here. Just some of the most delicious butter of all time, and popcorn-flavored pudding. Yum.

Dirt Candy
430 East 9th Street (Between 1st and A)

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