After eating at Amanda Cohen’s expensive restaurant, Dirt Candy, I felt light, as though I had just done colonoscopy prep. If you’ve never done this, you feel like an anorexic who not only starves herself of food, but also uses laxatives for that ultimate feeling of the-light-going-through-you perfect emptiness.
The feeling was not entirely unpleasant, but it was not what the cooks had intended me to feel. Cohen describes her own cooking at Dirt Candy as “decadent” and “luxurious” and “luscious,” and ever since she opened the place in 2008, she’s portrayed the restaurant as a uniquely voluptuous and pleasure-hellbent palace, as over against all other vegetarian restaurants, which she says are “horrible… I just don’t enjoy them.”
And the food media have fully bought her contention that other meatless cooking is pallid and joyless, a cuisine to which Cohen has, as the New York Times put it, arrived as a “thrilling” and “daring” antidote. So there I was, at Cohen’s big, white-leathered restaurant on Allen Street on the Lower East Side, eating some of my spouse’s entrée called “Cauliflower” ($18), which the menu said was “cauliflower and curry with green pea saag, papaya chutney and papadum.” It was very small, and the taste was pleasant. Yet it consisted of dollhouse-sized bits of cauliflower and a few other vegetables, on a wee, dollhouse-sized papadum, like a tiny disk of vaguely sweet and appealing cardboard for little pixies to munch on. The vegetables were in a mildly tasty, utterly unspicy curry, but so itty-bitty and denuded of their particular vegetable flavors that I felt like a baby eating baby food.
I have had so many more heart-racing vegetarian curries at, yes, Indian restaurants, Sri Lankan boîtes, and Malaysian roadhouses, not to mention other hearty vegetarian dishes at Uzbek, Egyptian, Ukrainian, Russian, and Chinese places.
With thumb pressed into other vegetarian chefs’ eyes, Amanda Cohen forgets her “luscious” pledge
There was one very good thing on the plate — thin slices of fresh paneer (an Indian cottage-like cheese, but so much richer and more delicious than that sounds).
Then came my own entrée, “Radish”($18). It consisted, the menu said, of “black radish spaghetti with radish ravioli, radish greens pesto, and horseradish,” which I have to say sounded pretty good to me. I love radishes. It was interesting — which is the very best I can say about it. The spaghetti tasted like slightly less sharp radishes, and the whole dish was sitting on a thin white sauce that I could not properly identify as either the “pesto” or the “horseradish,” because it mainly tasted sweet and a little vegetal. The sauce was also interesting. It activated my brain (“hmmm… I’m really curious what that flavor is”) but not its pleasure centers. I didn’t mind the dish, but I didn’t exactly enjoy it, either. I’ve gotten a far bigger vegetarian bite for my buck at Veselka on Second Avenue, where the pierogies satisfy the soul in a way that, frankly, none of the food does here.
One highlight, though, was what the menu called a “snack” of “Korean fried broccoli” ($8), which was a tiny clump of delicious, spicy, deep-fried breaded broccoli balls threaded with a sauce made from gochujang, the excellent Korean condiment of red chili with pungent, fermented soybeans. The gochujang was mixed with lots of garlic and soy sauce — too much soy sauce, for the balls turned out overly salty. Still, they had a nice bite, and an appealing creamy white sauce on top that reminded me of tahini on falafel balls. I liked them very much.
The major problem of the evening came when after our appetizer and entrées, we were still hugely hungry. We ordered, therefore, an emergency plate of “curried fries” ($8). I don’t often eat fries, because I usually want to spend the calories on something else. But I was ravenous and so joined Karen in scarfing them. The dish turned out to be something you should only eat to fill an empty stomach, not for pleasure. The best part was, again, the few bits of fresh paneer that came with the plate. The fries themselves were soggy from sitting in a vaguely brown sauce, supposedly curry but more like a sweet gravy.
Dessert, however, from pastry chef Alycia Harrington, was extraordinary: a slice of “carrot meringue pie” with sour cream ice cream ($13). The filling was like a cross between carrot jam and an elegant jello, a voluptuous — finally! — gelatinous, sweet mass that somehow incarnated the carrot as a fruit. The meringue was silky. The sour cream ice cream was possibly even better — truly exciting.
All right, I spoke too harshly. That pie satisfied my soul, no question.
At brunch another day I had the “zucchini pancakes with squash blossom butter” ($11), which frankly sounds like one of the things in the world I would most want to eat for brunch. When it came, though, my pancakes were, once more, itsy-bitsy and precious. I should have taken photos of them and not tasted them, for when I did they were like mild zucchini cardboard with powdered sugar on top. They only tasted good with lots of maple syrup and “squash blossom butter” daubed on (that butter, for what it’s worth, tasted like regular old butter). I like a pancake that tastes good by itself so you can have some contrast when you eat, a naked bit next to a syrupy bit. But naked, these pancakes just tasted like nothing.
“Let the earth of my body be mixed with the earth/my beloved walks on,” the sacred cowgirl Radha tells her beloved, the god Krishna, in a traditional Hindu erotic-religious poem. But if there is sexy dirt at Dirt Candy, it’s not going into the food.
Strangely, in her hugely successful courting of the press, Cohen has put out the message that there is an inherent opposition between healthy eating and good food politics on the one hand, and wild insatiable pleasure on the other. She’s wrong. It is abundantly possible to have all three. If you want them all together, go to the madly delicious, organic vegan restaurant Caravan of Dreams, about a 15-minute walk from Dirt Candy. Go to La Morada in the Bronx, or Tanoreen in Bay Ridge. Go to your own kitchen.
In an endless stream of marketing talk, Cohen has insisted that her own cooking must be orgasmic because she “doesn’t care about your health [or] your politics.” She proudly notes that her fruits and vegetables are not local, seasonal, or organic, as though an abundance of pesticides guaranteed pleasure.
Worse, at Dirt Candy you will spend lots of money eating your tomatoes grown to survive thousands of miles of travel and broccoli picked a long time ago at the other side of the world. Dinner for two came to $130, and when we got home we had to raid the Barbara’s Puffins box.
Dirt Candy (212-228-7732, dirtcandynyc.com) is at 86 Allen Street between Grand and Broome Street. Reservations are suggested, especially for dinner. Hours: Dinner, 5:30 to 11 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. Brunch, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday. The restaurant is wheelchair accessible, including an accessible restroom with a beautiful flower mural covering the entire inside wall. There is a no-tipping policy, but a 20 percent administration fee is applied to the bill.