A restaurant staying open in New York City is an extraordinary feat these days. Staying relevant and remaining revolutionary for 14 years and counting? Near impossible. Yet, Dirt Candy, Amanda Cohen’s shrine to vegetables manages to continually break new ground as an inspirational model for the restaurant industry, which also happens to serve some of the most delicious and creative food in the city.
In 2008 when Dirt Candy first opened in the East Village, it changed the face of New York City’s vegetarian cuisine with a refined creativity that went beyond veterans such as Angelika Kitchen, and a versatility that surpassed the raw fine dining at Pure Food & Wine. Starred reviews, Beard Award nominations, television appearances, and a graphic novel-style cookbook followed for chef-owner Cohen. But despite her pioneering efforts (she was among the first to eliminate tipping in New York, for example) and high profile, Cohen is curiously often overlooked.
This spring, she presented another reason why it’s high time that more restaurants follow the her example: She began including attributions to her staff on the menu, another refreshing move in an industry where chefs and owners tend to take all of the credit.
“No restaurant functions just because of one person,” Cohen says. “There’s a whole team of us that make it work. And for the last couple of menus, I’ve really tried to get my sous chefs involved as much as possible, to take a little bit of the burden off of me, and to get them excited about creating dishes and learning new things. And I want them to feel as much pride in this place as I do. To acknowledge how hard they work, I put their names on the menu.”
Chef de cuisine Maria Herrera, pastry chef Rachel Bossett and sous chefs Michaela Duke, Andrew Duong, and Matt Miller all contribute to Dirt Candy’s menu. “Amanda will start with an idea of ingredients,” explains Miller, who recently created a green bean ceviche “bundle,” that is sent out as an extra course. “Our ideas will intertwine together and we’ll come up with a first draft.” After several tests, the staff sits down, tastes, exchanges feedback. The feedback is the “creative element I enjoy most,” says Duong, who fashioned a carrot taco snack “extra” for the summer menu. “Our seasonal format lends itself to us being able to play with food and the creative freedom to go anywhere with it. It’s really fulfilling.”
Herrera sees herself as the “conductor” of this medley of vegetables, as she’s responsible for the organization of the process once the menu is settled. “I find the vendors, make the orders, organize who is going to do what.” She also takes on the role of a devil’s advocate, ensuring the chefs think through exactly how a dish will work for more than 100 covers each night.
Dirt Candy’s five-course tasting menu changes four times a year. The new summer menu, featuring a greatest-hits list of greenmarket ingredients runs through early October. And at $90, including tip, it’s one of the most affordable tasting menus in town. A vegan version is also available.
Here’s a closer look at the summer menu, in the team’s own words.
Corn mousse, fresh corn, seaweed caviar, and baby corn
“We’ve been wanting to do a corn and caviar dish for a while,” says Cohen. “One day I was on the internet and I came across these corn molds. I thought, that’s actually really fun. We could mold our corn mousse to look like cob corn, and pair it with the caviar. It looks really fun. Rachel [Bossett] the pastry chef, made a yeasted corn bread to go with it, and we think of this dish as a bread-and-butter course. We serve it with caviar accompaniments — crème fraîche, onions, and of course, baby corn, which is totally in season. The saltiness and the sweetness of the corn, and the way that corn sort of pops in your mouth the same way the caviar does, felt like a combination that should have been around forever, like peanut butter and jelly.”
The Making of the Tomato Course at Dirt Candy
Tomato cake, yellow tomato jam, tomato leather, smoked feta
“People know summer has started when the tomato cake or tart returns to the Dirt Candy menu,” Cohen says. “This time we have a tomato cake with smoked feta, peeled and marinated cherry tomatoes, wrapped up with a tomato leather, which is just like fruit leather. This year, we added a tomato jam and some pickled green onions. This idea originally started as an answer to the Caprese salad. I thought, what can we do at Dirt Candy to make it a little bit different? And the result is nothing like a traditional Caprese salad.”
3. Summer Squash
Zucchini soup dumplings, zucchini ribbons, squash blossoms, black vinegar
“This was the hardest dish on the menu, a real exercise in problem-solving, and Michaela [Duke, sous chef] worked really hard on this one,” Cohen says. “Figuring out how to get soup into a dumpling without gelatin is … really hard. Agar doesn’t melt the same way. But one day another one of our chefs was watching a TikTok of reverse spherification. So we decided to make the soup portion in that way. We put that sphere in the dumpling, and then mold the dumpling around it. It’s a little bit different than a traditional soup dumpling, but it’s pretty close. You bite into it, and it bursts in your mouth — it’s this really intense soup that tastes like zucchini, inside the zucchini dumpling wrapper. All the accompaniments are also zucchini, adding a layer of different flavors. The dish includes dehydrated squash blossoms, for example, which are crispy. ”
“The hardest part was figuring out how to make soup dumplings that won’t sog out right before service,” Duke adds. “There are not a lot of vegan gelatins that have the right texture. There are ones that solidify well but don’t take to the remelting process. But we finally figured it out. We made about four or five different dumpling doughs before we settled on it. We originally were going to make the dumplings green. But we changed it to yellow as it looks more like a summer squash. And steamed green dough doesn’t really look as good, especially when cooked. They are served with a black vinegar sauce that would normally come with a dumpling.”
“At first we thought this was a good idea,” Cohen says. “And pretty quickly we decided this is a really, really, really bad idea. It took a lot a lot of testing. And we have to make 120 of these dumplings a day. It’s not the best idea in terms of execution, but it’s delicious. So we’re going with it!”
Sesame eggplant, chermoula ranch, black sesame tahini
“Something that we noticed partway through creating the summer menu was that the entire menu is like a deconstructed version of ratatouille,” Cohen points out. “OK, so maybe corn and cucumber aren’t traditionally in ratatouille but certainly zucchini, tomato, and eggplant are. And the whole menu is just the perfect example of what is at the farmers market right now and exactly why one makes a ratatouille.
“Eggplant is really delicious on its own, but it’s also a really good whiteboard for everything else that you serve it with. And there’s so much texture to bring out in eggplant, so for this dish we decided to highlight the texture a little bit more. So we cut it into rings, salt it and then deep fry it in sesame batter. But you’re getting a big chunk of it, which is nice because we always want the last savory course to be a knife-and-fork-dish. I feel like that makes the end of the meal feel really satisfying. And underneath the sesame eggplant we are serving an eggplant salad, so you’re getting the really true eggplant texture from it being cooked and then a raw bright flavor in the salad. We serve it with labne, which is Middle Eastern yogurt, and chermoula, which is like a relish, as we wanted to keep it in that Northern African/Middle Eastern area. A little black tahini makes it a bit more creamy.”
Cucumber jam, white chocolate, dill pickle meringue, melon sorbet
“I wanted to do something with smores, so I thought about how to incorporate a summer vegetable into what smores would be,” Bossett says. “So there’s a white chocolate element and a semi-melty, creamy element in a cream puff, with cucumber cream mousse inside. I put crunchy graham crackers on top and there’s a dill pickle meringue, which adds a toasted marshmallow situation. There’s also a cucumber jam to pull up the cucumber flavor a little bit more, and then there’s more graham crackers just under a melon sorbet, which pairs nicely because cucumber is actually a melon. Altogether it’s a refreshing, smores-ish, summer dessert.”
Dirt Candy is open Tuesdays to Saturdays from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.