We severely fucked up on our recent trip to New York—with the craziness that generally is our work lives come fall-winter, we failed to make a reservation at Dirt Candy, the inventive Manhattan vegetarian restaurant that usually books up weeks in advance. I myself hadn’t had a chance to check out Dirt Candy’s new(ish) location and expanded menu, so I was especially bummed when we made the realization. Luckily, Katie happened to check availability while we were out one night and we were able to snag a two-top last minute. The result—one of our favorite dining experiences in a long, long time.
Being longtime fans of her smaller former iteration and (now) huge fans of the new one, we reached out to chef + owner of Dirt Candy, Amanda Cohen, to find out more about the move and the restaurant in general.
raven + crow: What brought on the move from your former space to your current location? Was it just a desire for a larger space overall or did you want to transform your diner’s experience somehow?
Amanda Cohen: Both! The original Dirt Candy only had 18 seats, and that meant a lot of restrictions. There was nowhere to wait if you showed up early for your reservation, there wasn’t a bar if you wanted something besides beer or wine, there wasn’t room in the kitchen to really cut loose and experiment with more complicated dishes, and there wasn’t storage space to offer a larger wine list or a bigger menu. The new space conquers all those problems.
Kudos on all of that, especially the wine bit—loved your offerings in that department. Do you know if your former landlord has a veg-friendly-leaning though? Superiority Burger’s in there now, right?
My former landlord is money-friendly-leaning. I arranged for Brooks and his guys to take over my old lease. Brooks is a friend, so I was happy to help him get his place up and running.
Well, I think we can all safely say the world thanks you for that. Totally love Brooks’ food and take on the scene in general. In the new space, the bar/counter stands out as very central in my mind—was that intentional?
Absolutely! Some restaurants hide the kitchen, as if they’re somehow ashamed of the work that goes into their food and the people who perform that work. They want to pretend magical elves are secretly preparing your dinner. I want the cooking and my cooks to be front and center of my restaurant. I want people to see Hector, and Alexis, and Nin, and Kyle, and Julia, and all the people whose hard work goes into making their dinner.
Nice. Yeah, I love that, especially in this age of more transparency and intimacy and familiarity with our food. It makes you feel like your more a part of it all, all Anthony Bourdain-esque. Back to the booze, when we were in, I ordered an amazing natural red wine that I curse myself for not taking note of…something in the description about an earthy forest floor; I absolutely loved it, but I was unaware of the world of natural wine before. Can you speak to what that is and how it differs from our common wines or organic wines?
That’s the Clos Fantine Faugeres, and you’re right—it’s pretty great! At the original Dirt Candy I didn’t have much room for wine, so there were only four whites and four reds on my list. As a result, I wanted to make sure they were funky, strange, exotic wines you couldn’t find in other restaurants, rather than just the same old Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. My wine reps got the picture and one of them, Camille Reviere, started bringing me bottles of natural wine, which were a huge trend in Europe at the time but weren’t well-known here. Natural wines are made with nothing more than the grapes. That’s it. There are absolutely no additives—even organic certification allows some additives in the winemaking process. So what you get are these wines that are very volatile (the taste of the wine can differ from bottle to bottle), very delicate, and very fresh. They taste exactly like the ground where the grapes grow, and a lot of them have a funky edge to them which makes them taste a bit fermented and very alive. Having a natural Chardonnay was a revelation to me because I had previously always thought I hated Chardonnay when what I really hated was how most winemakers made it.
Wow. That’s awesome. And THANK YOU for the name of that red. I’ve gotta look for that one. Back to the space now, I have another, very important question—what the hell’s behind the double-danger doors across from the bathroom? Dragons? Uranium? Tiger pits?
Mountain Lions. Radioactive Mountain Lions. They keep out the Ultra-Mice at night.
FUCKING KNEW IT! For any poor soul who hasn’t experience the menu or dining gestalt of Dirt Candy, how would you describe what you hope to have achieved with the restaurant? Your dishes alone stand out in such a stunning, unique way from other vegetarian restaurants.
That’s really, really nice of you to say.
All I want is to cook vegetables and have fun and to surprise people. I want you to eat a dish at Dirt Candy and say, “I never thought about eggplant this way.” Or, “I didn’t know celery could be so good in a cocktail.” I like to take chances and experiment, and while not every dish is a home run every time, I hope people come along for the ride.
I know it’s tough to pick a favorite, but what dish has got you most excited on the current menu?
Right now it’s the large format dishes for two people. We didn’t have the room to do these at the original Dirt Candy but at the new place it is so…much…fun. I’ve got Brussels Sprout Tacos that come out on a sizzling stone, a Cabbage Hot Pot that comes with all kinds of accompaniments, the Corn Boil that arrives with a bib and a bucket of bourbon milkshakes. I watch tables order these dishes and they’re hesitant at first and then they start fooling around, and sharing stuff, and talking, and arguing, and getting messy and I think, “Yes! This is what dinner should be!”
Bucket of bourbon milkshakes? I think I severely mis-ordered on my last visit. I wonder if it’s tough at all when—it seems to me, at least—you get so much hype around your hush puppies with the maple butter, something that’s been a mainstay for a while now. Those things are truly crave-worthy, but are you ever like ‘Hey, man, I’ve put a TON of work into, like, a hundred other dishes too!’
On the one hand—yes. It’s heartbreaking to spend a lot of time and energy on a dish and really feel like you hit it out of the park, and then have diners reject it while sucking up mountains of hush puppies with maple butter. On the other hand, it makes me step up my game. The hush puppies taught me that you have to have variety on a menu. There have to be craveable dishes like the hush puppies, or the KFB, or the Carrot Sliders, then there need to be the calmer more complex dishes like the Eggplant or the Cauliflower. And there have to be earnest, straightforward dishes like the Shanhai Shoots or the Forager’s Salad. They’re not all going to appeal to the same people, but your menu has to have them all, and hopefully they’ll let people construct a really interesting meal with them.
Well-said. I’m told the pups are featured in the cookbook you did, which I, sadly, have yet to pick up. Was that fun to do? Hair-tear-out-y? Both?
Writing a cookbook is not for the weak-hearted. I’m proud of the work we all did on the cookbook, and I’m really happy with how it ended up, but it was a struggle. Writing a cookbook and doing all the recipe testing is hard enough, but then, after we sold it to our publisher we sat down for our first meeting with them and they said, “So does it have to be a comic book? Why don’t we do a cookbook with photos? Won’t that be fun?”
Oh my god, that must have been pretty crushing. What made you want to do a graphic novel-style cookbook in the first place though?
People had been asking me to do a cookbook and I’d been avoiding it because the world has plenty of really great cookbooks already. My house is full of them.
If I was going to add another to the pile, I wanted to make sure I was contributing something worthwhile and different, not just some more vegetable recipes. My husband and I were walking down the street arguing one day and he said, “You may as well do something stupid, like a comic book cookbook.” And we both stopped in our tracks and said, “That’s it.”
That’s awesome. To follow up on a question you say is answered in the cookbook—DOES Martha Stewart like Dirt Candy?
She seemed to, but I swear, that woman is inscrutable!
Your design sensibility extends beyond the cookbook though—we LOVED your menu’s infographics, they were well-done AND super-funny. Is all of that really true?
Absolutely. There were a few things I had to guesstimate, like how many customers fell out of the three-legged chairs at the original space, but otherwise it’s all as accurate as I can make it.
I’m assuming the customer babies weren’t deliver AT Dirt Candy, but did the 12 couples married get engaged there?
No, but a lot of them had their first dates there, so we’re a lucky charm. Then again, we’ve all witnessed several relationships break up at Dirt Candy, too, so maybe not. Hey guys, here’s a tip: if you want to dump your girlfriend, don’t take her out to a nice dinner to do it. I can assure you that it doesn’t turn out well.
Happy to see Step Up: All In got a shout-out too.
It’s a great movie. Not as great as Armageddon, but still pretty good.
So, this might dredge up bad blood, but I remember back when we still lived in New York and you opened your first restaurant, you got a lot of flack from some vegans for making the restaurant vegetarian instead of vegan. Was that tough to deal with at the time?
Actually, at both the original and the new Dirt Candy, every dish can be made vegan. I was a vegan for a while and I know how tough it is to navigate a lot of menus, so to me it was just common sense to have a vegan version of everything. Somehow that made some vegans angry. I’m still not sure what happened exactly, but it was a pain in the butt to exert extra effort to make vegans feel welcome and then get blasted in really vile ways by people claiming to represent the vegan community.
We were always so put off by that public reaction—it always seemed so detrimental to the movement and to popularizing more animal-friendly food. Do you feel like the vegan community has accepted your restaurant and food over time though?
You know, people are strange. I have so many vegan customers and regulars who I absolutely adore, but at the same time I still get the occassional phone call or email from someone telling me I’m participating in the holocaust because I use eggs, or someone who is angry that I don’t support the same causes they do. I want dinner to be fun, not a poltical campaign, and there are so many other great restaurants that advocate a lifestyle or political choice, but I’m not them. Also, as a Jew, telling me about the egg holocaust doesn’t elicit a lot of my sympathy.
I’m guessing that wouldnt, no. Do you have any plans for expanding beyond New York? I feel like you’d go over pretty awesomely in Los Angeles.
I’d love to! Do you know any investors???
Man…actually, maybe. I’ll get back to you on that. But any other exciting future plans you can talk about or are you happy enjoying things the way they are for now?
Right now, I’m so happy with the new restaurant that I’m focusing on just being there for the duration. I’m planning on spending 2016 getting things really locked down and I have some awesome events to unleash. Solo Diner’s Week will return, we’ve got a great event coming up in April, and starting in June I’m starting a series that’s going to kick butt and might be the most fun I’ve ever had in my restaurant. Details to be unveiled when the time is right and the moon rises in the seventh house and the stars are all aligned.
…That’s February, right?
If you’re in New York any time soon, seriously, plan a trip to Dirt Candy. It’s one of the most inventive restaurants on the scene right now and its new space is beyond inviting and gorgeous. Below, Dirt Candy’s façade; the Celery Cheese Cake Roll with Raisin Caramel, which can be done vegan and which we can vouch is fucking spectacular; the (not vegan) Rainbow Monkey Bread that’s served to every non-vegan table (dyed with vegetable juices; vegans get less exciting but still good bread); and our receipt, which points out that Dirt Candy pays its employees fair wages and eschews tips, which we think is pretty cool. All photos minus that last one and the Danger Doors courtesy of Dirt Candy.