It’s good to push the envelope. It leads to things like the Declaration of Independence, and pants that zip off into shorts. The results aren’t always such ringing successes, as shown by Joaquin Phoenix trying to be a rapper and bubble wrap as a fashion accessory. But at the very least, they spark discussions that always seem to include someone saying, “We’re talking about it, so it worked.” Dirt Candy pushes boundaries with the food it serves, and while there are a few misses to go along with the many hits, a meal here is something you’ll both talk about and be happy you experienced.
When Dirt Candy first opened in a tiny East Village space in 2008, it became known for serving vegetarian dishes you couldn’t begin to imagine cooking in your own kitchen - like “hot dogs” with franks made of grilled and smoked broccoli. They were definitely doing something unique, but the real selling point for us was just how much we enjoyed eating the food. Since then, plenty of other vegetarian restaurants have started serving upscale dishes creative enough to attract people with all types of dietary preferences, and there’s not as much of a novelty factor around things like broccoli dogs or an eggplant dessert flambeed tableside. But even though it has more competition these days, Dirt Candy continues to be more innovative and entertaining than the rest, and the food here is still really good.
Since 2015, that food has been served in a much larger, sleeker, and more comfortable location on the Lower East Side. The attractive, white-walled dining room with an open kitchen works for both fun group dinners and unique date nights, and you’ll find both very good cocktails and a wine list entirely made up of options from small-production, women-run wineries around the world. While all these things enhance the Dirt Candy experience, they also fade to the background once the food starts coming, as you try to figure out what you’re looking at and how it tastes the way it does.
Dirt Candy offers two constantly-changing tasting menus - five courses for $65 and ten courses for $99 (including tip) - both of which can be made vegan if you ask. We recommend the longer option, which feels like more of a deal than the abbreviated menu. But either way, you’ll get dishes with flavors and presentations unlike any others in the city. Dinner may start with a three-story wooden tower full of things like edible flowers over black-eyed pea hummus, and a canister of seaweed with the look and texture of caviar. There’s portobello mousse as smooth and rich as foie gras, and sliders that’ll make you realize carrots can somehow be as meaty as pork. As for the desserts, things like cauliflower cake, mushroom chocolate pudding, and eggplant foster are good enough to make us wonder if we should try turning more vegetables into desserts on our own. The answer is no - but only because Dirt Candy can clearly do it better.
On the other hand, a few dishes here seem to focus on production value more than flavor. DIY brussels sprout tacos that come out on a sizzling stone would be a fun communal appetizer, but it’s disappointing to get brussels sprouts wrapped in iceberg lettuce as the primary savory course on an expensive tasting menu. The onion tartare tastes like an overly salty onion ring, and the dish that involves dipping thin leafy greens in black bean bagna cauda is the most awkward way you’ve been coerced into eating vegetables since your parents tried the airplane thing with broccoli when you were already sneaking into PG-13 movies.
As is often the case when people push the envelope, some things here go too far, seemingly just for the sake of sparking discussion. But the hits more than make up for the misses. This constant push to do something new also helps keep this place relevant, because even though there are more restaurants than ever offering protein from things that grow in the ground rather than things that walk on top of it, few of them are as memorable as Dirt Candy. This place isn’t just a case of “it worked because we’re talking about it” - it’s a spot we’ll continue to talk about because it works.
There’s no menu at Dirt Candy, so the servers explain each dish as they deliver it. Make sure you’re comfortable when this one arrives, because the description takes a while. The tower, which has three levels and looks like a presentation from biology class, includes things like edible flowers, foraged greens, spinach soup, and housemade breadsticks dipped in goat cheese with slices of bell pepper and radish on the ends. We like the whole thing, but our favorite part is the canister of seaweed, which is served over avocado and creme fraiche, and could be a very convincing stunt double for caviar.
Like the tall kid on a middle school basketball team, this dish never gets substituted out. And that’s for good reason, since the broccoli is crunchy, spicy, and fantastic.
We’d prefer these little fluffy pastries as a dessert filled with something sweet (rather than a starter filled with squash baba ganoush), but they’re still enjoyable. Of the bread-focused small plates we’ve had here, this is our favorite.
Despite being made out of portobello mushrooms, this creamy mousse is as rich as foie gras, especially when you eat it with the truffle toast. The cherries and Asian pears give it some sweetness, and a bite of everything together is delicious.
The servers explain that this is Dirt Candy’s take on chips and dip, and it involves dipping leafy greens into an aioli or bagna cauda. But unlike real chips, the salad leaves are soft, so they’re awkward to eat, and you’re essentially just eating spoonfuls of salty dip. This is one of the dishes that seems creative just for the sake of being creative.
Even if you tend to think that veggie burgers ruin the good name of burgers everywhere, you’ll probably agree these carrot sliders are enjoyable enough to call themselves whatever they want. The carrot confit patties have a texture as meaty as pork, and they’re served on carrot buns as soft as milk buns.
The crunchy, smoky broccoli is good, but the mustard barbecue sauce is the dominant flavor, and the buns are pretty boring. If the carrot sliders are this place’s version of burgers and this is their take on hot dogs, then as is usually the case, the burgers come out on top.
You can’t really taste the celery noodles with all the peanut broth and peanut crumbs. The grilled mushrooms are nice, but there aren’t enough of them, and each bite is basically just all peanut or all celery leaves.
We like onions a lot, but between the raw onion, onion rings, and smoked onion cream, this is too much even for us.
This is a fun presentation - with charred brussels sprouts arriving on a sizzling stone and DIY additions like avocado and pickled onion - and it’d be perfectly fine as a light starter. But when it’s your final savory course, it’s a letdown after so many better small plates before.
This looks simple enough - a single skewer of beets cooking over a little grill in front of you - but there’s actually a lot more going on. You’re told to let the beets rest on a plate that’s pre-dressed in lemon juice before you eat them. This causes the juices to mix and create a palate cleanser for after you eat the beets. Points for creativity (and letting us play with fire), but there’s so much acid from the lemon juice that you can’t really taste the beets.
From eggplant foster that’s flambeed tableside to mushroom chocolate pudding with warm chocolate sauce poured over it, all of the desserts here are really, really good. We like the cauliflower cake with cauliflower caramel and cauliflower ice cream as much as any other dish here.