by Celia Sin-Tien Cheng
December 1, 2009
Roasted Potato Soup w/ Ketchup Caviar
430 E 9th St
(1st Ave & Ave A)
New York, NY 10009
Congratulations to Amanda Cohen! Her wonderfully conceived and executed vegetarian restaurant, Dirt Candy, turned one at the end of October. It’s no small feat, given the economic climate. But Chef Cohen’s attention to detail and perfect grasp of flavor profiles and textures are lost on no one. In the short year that it’s been around, Dirt Candy has garnered numerous accolades and made it into the 2010 Michelin Guide.
Upon opening, Dirt Candy instantly attracted fans who had been waiting for a vegetarian restaurant like this their entire lives: one whose mission is to serve tasty, fresh and fun cuisine, not the bland and radically health-driven menus commonly associated with vegetarian restaurants. The ingenuity and rich flavors of the dishes stand so fully on their own that you won’t even miss the meat.
The restaurant, which seats 19, is tiny, with the kitchen in view at the back. But like the food, the space is well conceived and inspires me to think about how to better utilize small spaces.
The seasonal menu is short and sweet with a handful of appetizers and entrées. The consistency and quality of the food are so solid that I couldn’t tell the difference in the food I ate there before they had gas in the kitchen and the food I’ve eaten there since. As Chef Cohen explained to me, the kitchen did not limit her production; she’d just rather keep the menu concise and serve the select dishes she’s come up with that are truly exquisite. I appreciate her philosophy and her fans clearly do too as the restaurant has continuous traffic.
The Portobello mousse — an earnest substitute for foie gras or pâté — is delicious. And the jalapeño hush puppies with maple butter are also not to be missed. I never tire of either of them. Instead of bread, I pop the hush puppies as starters to whet my appetite with a half a glass of wine. Another thing worth mentioning is the concise but well-curated wine list with off-the-beaten-track wines that can be ordered by the half glass, glass or bottle. I love the half glass option because I can try more varieties of wines or go back to the one I liked most.
New on the fall appetizer menu is the roasted potato soup with ketchup caviar. Potato soup may sound conventional, but if you read the roasted potato soup entry on Chef Cohen’s blog, it may blow your mind. Roasted for hours and hours until they are completely dehydrated, the potatoes are then cooked in an onion-citrus broth to rehydrate them. This method gives the most potent potato flavor possible.
I find it amusing is that Chef Cohen actually pays homage to two other potato dishes in her soup. The first is French fries and ketchup — hence the ketchup caviar, little pearls of tomato bombs that explode in your mouth. The second is the Chinese dish of shredded potato sautéed in vinegar (I grew up eating this at home and no one makes it better than my mother!). Chef Cohen’s rendition is deep fried shreds of vinegar-soaked potato shaped into a cylinder that the ketchup caviar sits on (image above). The presentation is beautiful, and it’s a pleasure to taste so many flavors interacting with one another in a singular dish.
I’ve tried most of the entrées on the menu, including the different pastas and the perennially popular stone ground grits with pickled shitake and a tempura poached egg. Whatever your decision on the mains, you can’t go wrong. Each dish speaks of uniqueness and potency in flavors.
Most surprising to me is Chef Cohen’s precision in cooking crispy tofu. Bean curd is my favorite food in Chinese cuisine because of the countless forms and delicious ways to prepare it, but it never impressed me in vegetarian restaurants in the States. Until now. With Chef Cohen’s tofu, the crispy outside and tender inside show respect to bean curd.
Tofu’s flavor and tone are set by the foods you pair with it. At Dirt Candy, I’ve had it with the green vegetable ragout, a medley of delish veggies with varying textures. The tofu is currently paired with broccolini.
The desserts are equally fun and interesting. The Nanaimo ice cream bar (Nanaimo is a city in Canada, not a Japanese root vegetable) has layers of sweet pea and mint ice cream sandwiched between chocolate-covered cookies. I’m looking forward to trying the red pepper velvet cake with white chocolate and peanut ice cream, and I miss the sesame pound cake with grapefruit sorbet that used to be on the menu.
Amanda Cohen has found a winning formula: following her heart by cooking exactly what she wants and unleashing creativity and having fun along the way. We love what she’s created and look forward to celebrating many more birthdays at Dirt Candy.