Fact: Vegetables are good for you. Always. Even if they've been battered and deep fried. Vegetables are the very best thing you can possibly eat.
In the late fall (or was it the early winter?) I became aware of a new restaurant in the east village called Dirt Candy where the chef wanted to do for vegetables what Peter Luger does for steak. That's the sort of statement that gets my attention, and while I'm adverse to visiting a restaurant boasting to be vegetarian, I'm curious about restaurants dedicated to vegetables. What generally turns me off about vegetarian restaurants is all the posturing like the restaurant is all cosmic and magical and going to save your life and the world, you know what I mean? But on the Dirt Candy website the chef comes right out and says (perhaps a little brashly) "I don’t care about your health. And I don’t care about your politics either. But I do care about cooking vegetables." And that's the sort of thing that gets me interested . . . that and a rather curious little menu of rather creative-sounding dishes. Well, fast-forward through many months of a taco and Momofuku-centric diet to an FHE conversation on restaurants where decisive plans were made and all of a sudden it's Wednesday night and Hillary and I are getting down to some vegetable business on East 9th Street.
On the whole, I regard the restaurant and the meal positively. The space is small, well designed, and fun. The staff attentive and friendly. The food, pleasing to the eye and enjoyable . . . except I feel very weird eating food utterly devoid of the flavor of pork fat. I want to be real clear: I enjoyed my meal and would definitely go back but something was definitely a little off for me and it took me several days to really realize what it was. The problem I had was the food wasn't bland but it was lacking a certain element of flavorfulness, or better said, it lacked a variety of flavors. The dishes all pretty much embodied a singular flavor and the flavors they embodied weren't particularly punchy. So each forkful satisfied, but nothing made me want to smack the table, and that's one of the reasons I eat: for the table-smacking moments of happiness.
That said, this is what we ate:
Jalepeño Hush Puppies with Maple Butter:
Totally excellent little hush puppies with bits of jalepeño in them . . . not peppery enough to qualify as spicy, but I enjoyed. And the maple butter was nice and sweet, but I'd have preferred a more savory flavor combination. Ok, frankly, I didn't want sweet butter at all. I wanted kimchi butter or black pepper butter (gee, wonder where I got the idea for those two from...) or chipotle butter, not fancy honey butter.
Greek Salad with Trumpet Royale Mushrooms and Preserved Lemon Mayo:
Favorite dish of the evening, a chopped interpretation of a fairly traditional greek salad with olives and feta topped with crispy, crusty deep-fried mushroom rings posing as calamari. The combination of the squidshrooms, olives, and feta with the pickled onions served on the side of the salad was the punchiest thing I ate that night and now, as I write on a very hungry late Sunday night, I definitely crave it.
Mixed Greens with Grilled Cheese Croutons, Roasted Garlic Vinaigrette and Candied Grapefruit Pops:
Okay, first of all, grapefruit is not a vegetable and this was supposed to be a vegetable restaurant. Second of all, I don't like grapefruit and I don't understand what I was supposed to do with the skewers of candied grapefruit that were served on top of this salad. Like, the salad I could eat in the normal fashion with my fork, but then I was left holding this sugar-encased piece of fruit on a stick. I was perplexed.
What I was not confused about was how great the grilled cheese croutons on this salad were. Yeah, grilled cheese croutons. Basically they made a nice little grilled cheese sandwich, cut it up in pieces, and topped our salad with it. I was down with that.
Another good thing to top a salad with would probably be a McDonalds cheeseburger. Just an idea I had.
Crispy Tofu with Green Ragout, Kaffir Lime Beurre Blanc:
One thing that can be said with certainty about the grub at Dirt Candy is that it comes out looking pretty and this dish might have been the prettiest. A beautiful piece of tofu (really, did I just type that?) that one could mistake at first glance for a piece white fish with real crispy skin served on top of a stack of fibrous greens in a little pool of yellow-green sauce, it was pretty. And it tasted a lot like the greens that came with this chicken I had at Jean Georges for lunch last April. So it was satisfying, but between the tofu, the veggies, and the sauce that complimented the flavor of everything else on the plate a little too well, once again, I wasn't punching anything with delight. But I'm feeling real, real hungry right now and would totally eat this again in a second.
Stone Ground Grits, Pickled Shitakes and a Tempura Poached Egg:
From the first time that I read the Dirt Candy menu, this was the dish I was most curious about--what I really wanted to know about was the tempura poached egg, especially after delighting in a few dishes featuring deep fried poached eggs at the Milk Bar. The plate came out looking like a thing of beauty and the poached egg a joy to rupture but, when everything about this dish is said and done, really what it tasted like was grits with a runny egg mixed around in it. Except for their texture, the mushrooms essentially disappeared into it.
Ok, that's what I think of Dirt Candy. I'll go there again someday. But maybe after trying the vegetarian tasting menu at Per Se? Or the bo ssam?