The journey to success
We had heard so much about Dirt Candy before going to New York. A true pioneer, chef and owner Amanda Cohen first opened the original Dirt Candy opened in 2008 and really blazed a new trail for vegetable-based cuisine in New York. With only 18 seats, it’s fair to say the restaurant was small, but the quality of the food was spectacular and Amanda’s reputation for delivering the ultimate dining experience ensured that Dirt Candy became one of the most difficult reservations in the city.
With talent comes success, and with success comes growth, and so in late 2014 Dirt Candy (version 1) closed its doors and moved a few blocks downtown to 86 Allen Street, and Dirt Candy (version 2) re-opened in January 2015. The restaurant is bigger, shinier and exactly what every great restaurant should be – packed to the rafters with delighted customers, bursting at the seams with passionate and dedicated staff and oozing quality from start to finish. Oh, and by the way, it’s STILL one of the most difficult reservations in the city!
Dirt Candy became the first vegetarian restaurant in 17 years to be awarded two stars from the New York Times, has won countless awards since and has even seen Amanda star on the hit US show, Iron Chef. Amanda has also done away with tipping, instead opting to increase pricing across the board by 20%, which enables her to pay her staff set salaries, above industry averages. It shows – the team exude passion and joy and clearly believe they are part of something very special and this only adds to the phenomenal experience you get at Dirt Candy.
We had what you might call the ‘box seat’, on a perfectly designed high bar with a perfect view of the open kitchen, within a couple of feet of Amanda Cohen herself, as she seamlessly runs the pass with the authority and skill that has given her a reputation as one of the city’s finest, but simultaneously a care and collegiate approach that has clearly made her staff so dedicated to the cause.
The menus came out, and with their content, it was easy to pass over the quality of their playful design. Simple and modern, the menu entices you and in all honesty, we could have chosen every single dish. There was also the option of a Chef’s choice tasting menu, but we ended up going for the a la carte selections – Mushroom (award-winning mushroom mousse), Tomato (tomato cake), Carrot (carrot sliders on carrot buns), Broccoli (broccoli dogs), Cauliflower (cauliflower curry) and Popcorn Beets (simply incredible). More on the dishes below, but flipping the menu over gives you a little bit more of an idea of what makes Amanda Cohen very different to your typical superstar New York Chef. There’s a whole raft of interesting, and very personal, facts about her trials and tribulations on the journey to where she is today – costs of the restaurants, horror stories with building contractors and playful references to some of her most critical customers, all told with a humour that has also made her a best-selling author.
After ordering, we received an incredible looking surprise starter, affectionately called ‘monkey bread’. It’s a terracotta plant-pot with what looks, at first glance, like beautifully coloured scoops of ice cream. But look, touch and taste a little closer and it’s the most perfectly baked, soft, warm bread, served with a home-made garlic butter. Each dish came out in perfect sequence from the kitchen, via Amanda’s careful eye, along with a detailed and knowledgeable explanation from the server of what we were about to eat.
First out was the ‘Mushroom’ dish, which won the PETA Fine Faux Fois Gras Challenge along with the $10,000 first prize. A combination of mushrooms, dehydrated Asian pears, toast and the main event – the mushroom mousse. Rich and creamy, the mousse melts in your mouth and works perfectly with the sweetness of the pears.
Our other favourite dish was ‘Carrot’ – carrot sliders on carrot buns. It’s impossible to describe how incredible they were, impossibly tasty and innovative.
Next came the tomato cake – an incredibly-flavoured cake topped with fresh tomatoes and encased in Dirt Candy’s own tomato ‘leather’.
The cauliflower curry followed, which is a beautiful fusion of colours and flavours, delicately balanced to create the best curry dish we can remember eating.
The last of our mains was ‘Broccoli’ – a brilliant take on a hot dog, simply pairing perfectly crunchy and flavoursome broccoli with delicious home-made bread buns – absolutely perfect!
As a side treat, we devoured the relatively new-to-the-menu ‘Popcorn Beets’, which took incredible multi-coloured seasonal beets and encased them in a crunchy, seasoned crust. They were fantastic and simply more evidence of the vision and skill of Amanda Cohen and her team at Dirt Candy.
Simply, thank you!
Despite the quality of the food, the highlight of the evening was getting to spend 10 minutes chatting to Amanda about Dirt Candy, her rise to the top and the struggles along the way. We were also lucky enough to get her thoughts on The Vurger Co and her advice for us just starting out. It was a pivotal moment for us and something we’ll never forget. Here is somebody who has chosen her own path, has endured just about every struggle a budding restaurant owner could have the misfortune of experiencing, and is now seeing the rewards for a career dedicated to doing something different, and putting vegetables on the map.
Dirt Candy is packed every single night and is surely so close to securing its first Michelin star, it must only be a matter of time.
Amanda and the Dirt Candy passionate team, thank you for your time, and for a wonderful evening.
The Vurger Co.