If the Mad Hatter had a constant craving for vegetables, his topsy-turvy tea party would look a lot like Dirt Candy’s tasting menus.
Like Alice in a cosmopolitan wonderland, chef Amanda Cohen has been paving the way for urban herbivores and female chefs since she first burst onto the scene in 2008 with the original location of her whimsical veggie-forward restaurant. That compact first kitchen was the origin of some of the city’s most ambitious plates—broccoli-loaded hot dogs, savory eggplant tiramisu, pillowy parsnips as soft as clouds—and Cohen’s cookbook is probably the only one on stands that doubles as a graphic novel.
The chef’s latest vision for Dirt Candy, though, is even more holistic. She gave her trademark à la carte servings the boot (except for during weekend brunch and at the bar) in exchange for two hyper-seasonal tastings: a five-course Vegetable Patch ($63 per person), full of the restaurant’s signature dishes; and a more ambitious Vegetable Garden ($97 per person), a nine-to-10 course dinner with an ever-evolving menu based on what produce is available that day. Based on how often vegetables come and go at the farmers’ market, I’d put my money on dishes switching out weekly.
Full disclosure: I’ve supported Cohen’s vision since the very beginning, from when the restaurant lived in a narrow dining space the size of my bedroom on East 9th Street to the weekly pop-up dedicated to her homeland this past winter (called the Great Canadian Beer Hall; I may have spent my anniversary there gazing at Justin Trudeau’s portrait with a handful of poutine in one hand and a glass of straight WhistlePig in the other). But can I handle this drastic of a shake-up? I consulted with my go-to dinner date, an old colleague from Seamless who became one of my closest friends, about the menu revamp. She was equally hesitant—mainly because she was concerned she would never have the opportunity to eat the super-addictive Korean fried broccoli ever again—but we arranged a ladies’ night out to investigate.
First thing’s first when it comes to dinner. Where’s the wine? Along with flipping the food on its head, Cohen made another vital change that screams GIRL POWER. Every bottle on the globe-spanning vino list, courtesy of award-winning sommelier and wine director Lauren Friel, was made by female vintners. After taking our time reading through the thoughtful flavor profiles, we settled on an elderflower-heavy muscat from the family-owned Rhous Winery in Crete, Greece.
A brief catch-up session was pleasantly interrupted with the first course of our Vegetable Garden: a three-tiered bounty of some of the most vivid crudités I’ve laid eyes on in a while. As suggested by our waitress, we worked our way from the bottom up. First came the deconstructed salad with edible flowers and marinated button mushrooms, followed by a generous shot of lime-spiked lettuce soup covered with a coconut-peanut rim and a “bouquet” of breadstick flowers topped with thinly sliced watermelon radishes, peppers cut like Life Savers, and blanched peas presented in a watering can.
The playfulness of the first course continued with our next four plates: bok choy and fermented black beans sprouting out of a flower pot; sliders (made with carrot burger patties in between carrot-based buns) served in a takeout container; a two-part pasta course with handmade ravioli swimming in a subtle broth and dumplings buried underneath Technicolor brassica; and a DIY snap pea course modeled after Chinatown’s Peking Duck House. We also got to reacquaint ourselves with some of Dirt Candy’s greatest hits. Old friends like the cherry tomato tart wrapped in tomato leather atop smoked feta, the perfectly creamy portobello mousse served with truffled toast, and (yes) the Korean fried broccoli all stopped by for a welcome reunion.
I was quickly running out of stomach space by the time dessert rolled around, but I don’t regret making a little extra wiggle room one bit. Freshly brewed tea cleansed my palate for the Forager’s Salad, fully loaded with an array of mint, lamb’s ear, edible flowers, dried blueberries, and, hidden underneath, soft Brie. Two classic cake slices—the smoky onion-ganache tart served with smoked almond ice cream and meringue drops, and a layered corn cake with a buttery popcorn ice cream and sweet corn sorbet—were welcome inclusions, but it was Dirt’s take on a Nawlins-style staple that was on fire…literally. Pastry chef Shannon Murphy rolled over to our table—equipped with the building blocks for the Eggplant Foster and an open flame—to flambé our third-to-last dish of the night. I was mesmerized from the moment the meaty eggplant went up in dramatic flames, but its accompaniments—eggplant chips, thumbprint cookies filled with eggplant jam, and a basil anglaise—made it truly remarkable.
I’ve never been a huge fan of the classic tasting; the idea of extra-small plates and expensive wine pairings spread out over the span of multiple hours often makes me crave a second dinner. Cohen’s approach to the concept, however, was completely satisfying for the mind, body, and spirit. The next time I spy new produce at the farmers’ market, I’m heading straight back.