I admit: I cannot limit myself to recipes. There are so many awesome food-related things to explore, it doesn’t seem right to only post about how to make food oneself at home – though fun and rewarding, it is only a small part of the wide food world out there.
I love going out to restaurants because it gives me a completely different perspective on creating food than doing it myself. It’s a treat regardless of how expensive or luxurious the restaurant is – indeed some of my favourite restaurants I’ve been to have been really cheap, really casual, and really mind-blowingly good. That said, it is always special to eat out.
Why? Because you get to taste something that you might not otherwise have ever thought up on your own. You get to experience the world through someone else’s senses. You get to behold a unique story that someone else created for you to enjoy. You get to appreciate all aspects of the performance that inform the food itself. And of course, you don’t have to do dishes afterwards.
I’m not going to lie though, I really enjoy doing dishes.
In any case, I really believe that eating at restaurants can be an incredibly rich learning experience, if approached with a mind that is open to possibility, and with senses that are ready to absorb every nuance and detail of the experience. Plus, it’s just fun!
One of my favourite restaurants I’ve been to recently is called Dirt Candy, in the East Village of Manhattan. I went there back in October with my friend Rachel (the cute redhead with whom I made the Vegan Chocolate Truffles). It’s a small place, with a narrow front of house and an open kitchen in the back, but the food they churn out is of a quality you wouldn’t believe. They are all about highlighting vegetables as the star of the dish (hence the name ‘Dirt Candy’), which I was obviously totally into. As a vegetarian, I’m used to having an easy time ordering at most restaurants, as usually there’s only a handful of options on the menu. Not so with this one: it’s a small menu, with one ‘snack’ (their famous Jalapeño Hush Puppies), four appetizers, four entrées, and four desserts – but every dish on the menu sounded so good, it was hard to decide!
I really like smaller menus in general. To me, it’s often a sign that the chef has put real care into perfecting each dish, and making it the best it can be, rather than inundating the diner with way more options than necessary. Not to mention that more dishes means more ingredients to stock, which often means less turnover of fresh ingredients and lesser-quality dishes. Plus, too much choice is paralysing.
The place is small, but the service is friendly, attentive, but light-hearted and not overbearing. They also have a fantastic wine list, if you’re into that sort of thing. They make a big effort to find lesser-known but unique, incredibly complex and delicious wines, so definitely try one or two when you go.
Rachel and I each ordered an appetizer, an entrée, and a dessert, and we shared them all so we could get a taste of everything (my favourite, and dare I say, the best strategy of restaurant-going). And we shared the snack. Here’s what we got:
Jalapeño Hush Puppies with Maple Butter: The jalapeño flavour could have been more pronounced, but the maple butter was good. A well-done starter. Though I didn’t like it that much, but only because I don’t care much for deep-fried things. The maple butter was good (as it should be – butter and maple syrup).
Mushroom | Portabello mousse, Shaved Braised Portabello, Truffled Toast, Pear and Fennel Compote: this was something to pay attention to. The mousse was the ultimate in umami and incredibly light at the same time – the perfect contrast of flavour and texture. The shavings of braised portabello were ultra thin, and their earthiness was very pleasing when paired with the fruity and aromatic compote. And needless to say the truffled toast was the necessary companion to the dish – we both enjoyed making our own little canapés out of all the different components.
Squash | Pumpkin Samosa Dumplings, Spaghetti Squash, Delicata Coconut Cream, Butternut Squash Broth: a creative riff on different types of squash. The samosa dumplings exploded with flavour – a crispy shell surrounding a thick paté of pumpkin and bold spices. The texture of the spaghetti squash added substance to the dish, with the coconut cream adding a richness when combined with the broth, and tied together with the delicata infusion. Very interesting. I would have liked the butternut squash a little bit more concentrated, to really raise the combined flavour of the dish, as it is eaten as a soup.
Broccolini | Sauteed Young Broccoli and Broccolini, Crispy Tofu, Orange Beurre Blanc: a fresh yet hearty combination. The broccolini was cooked perfectly – lightly sautéed until al dente. The crispy tofu added a great textural centre to the dish, and the orange beurre blanc sauce was truly something to behold: light and clean-tasting, with the richness from the butter and the citrusy aura from the orange in precise harmony. A more simple dish, but satisfying.
Zucchini | Homemade Mint and Tarragon Pasta, Thinly-sliced Zucchini noodles, Saffron Yoghurt Sauce, Homemade Baby Falafel, Squash Blossom Relish: My favourite of the evening. There were so many flavours, but somehow they were all balanced so well and the combinations were so interesting and various and there was no way this dish could not succeed. The pasta was so fresh and soft, and it was exciting to start to twirl it around my fork and then realise that there were strands of zucchini along with the pasta, that mimicked its colour and shape. The saffron yoghurt sauce was a fine choice to complement the herby, aromatic pasta, pulling the whole dish together and giving every bite a lovely subtle hint of saffron (one of my favourites) with a flavour both smooth and zesty from the yoghurt. The falafel were crispy on the outside and dense and moist on the inside – just like any good falafel should be. They added a great crunchy texture to an otherwise soft dish. And the squash blossom relish on top was just what I needed as a sour element to balance the flavour profiles of the dish. All in all, a very well-conceived, well-executed dish. It was very inspiring.
Fennel Funnel Cake | with carmelised mango and fennel, and chocolate sorbet: a very cheeky dish. The chocolate sorbet was incredible – so rich and smooth, one would have thought it had dairy in it. Again, I’m not too into deep-fried stuff, so to me the funnel cake just tasted like cardboard. But it was a well-done dish. Rachel is much more an authority on funnel cake than I, and she assured me it was good – a light batter, not too greasy, with a good crisp texture.
Ice Cream Nanaimo Bar | Sweet Pea, Mint, Chocolate: My second-favourite of the evening. A creative take on a west-coast Canadian classic (which made me happy and a little nostalgic), replacing the coconut chocolate base and the custard filling with sweet pea mint and vanilla ice cream respectively. It was light, aromatic, and the use of sweet pea in a dessert definitely earned points in my book – I really like using ingredients in unexpected ways, like vegetables in dessert, for instance. A deceptively complex dish, not too sweet, and just the right size for a post-dinner sating.
If these descriptions give you any idea, it was a meal to wonder at. I was very impressed and Rachel and I had a wonderful leisurely late-night dinner.
In other news, I may be interning there in the summer. A few weeks back I emailed the head chef, and asked if they took summer interns. She said they love having interns so they’d probably love me. I was taken aback at how easy it was to get an offer. It would be unpaid, but a really cool opportunity to work with one of the best vegetarian chefs in New York right now, so maybe it will work out, if Yale decides to give me a little fellowship love.
If you’re in the city I highly recommend you go. The menu changes seasonally, so there will likely be some different things than I had, but you won’t be disappointed.
Let me know how it goes!