This story first appeared in the November 2014 edition of The Lo-Down’s print magazine.
In 2008, after a career cooking for other people, chef Amanda Cohen launched Dirt Candy, a tiny vegetarian restaurant in the East Village whose popularity quickly outstripped its capacity. With 18 seats and a miniscule kitchen, its reservations booked up more than two months in advance and its walk-in lines grew legendary.
After two years of shopping for larger digs, Cohen’s first look inside the former bus station at 86 Allen St. told her she’d found a new home for her restaurant.
“I said, ‘This is exactly where my kitchen should be,’” Cohen said. “I could see it from the moment I walked in.”
The broad storefront that runs most of the block between Grand and Broome streets has undergone a total renovation. Cohen’s plans revolve around a large kitchen that’s open to the 50-seat dining room and the 10-person bar, so diners can observe the action at the stove. The expanded space has also enabled Cohen and her team to think big about what they serve.
“Our menu was so dictated by the size of our fridges—we have so much more room to play in now,” she said. “We’re all really excited to spend the next two months testing recipes.”
The original Dirt Candy on East Ninth Street, which has collected “Best Vegetarian Restaurant in NYC” awards from the Village Voice, L Magazine and other media, closed Aug. 30. If all goes according to plan with Con Edison service and other variables, the new location is scheduled to open by the end of the year.
While it will be more expansive, the menu at “big” Dirt Candy will be similar in genre to “little” Dirt Candy, Cohen said. She crafts each dish around a primary ingredient, and then riffs on it in ways that all work together. For example, the entree called “Beets” is composed of salt-roasted beets, Thai green curry, beet gnocchi and whipped coconut galangal cream. Appetizers run about $12, while entrees clock in around $20. Everything on the menu can be made vegan on request. Desserts include options like carrot meringue pie and rosemary eggplant tiramisu. Cohen plans to serve both lunch and dinner, as well as beer, wine and liquor.
A prolific blogger on her own website and an occasional columnist for the citywide food blog Eater, Cohen is the opposite of the mysterious, aloof chef type. She openly shares her thinking behind her creations, as well as her strong and sometimes contrarian opinions about her industry in engaging prose. About the beets dish, for example, she tells readers on the restaurant’s blog that beets are almost never featured in Asian cooking, so she gave it a shot. “I decided that I’d take my beets on an adventure and make a curry for them,” she wrote. “If any vegetable could stand up to curry, it would be beets with their solid, stolid earthiness.”
Earlier this year, she took to a larger audience at Eater in a couple of thought-provoking essays about the practice of tipping (which she argues should be abolished in favor of fairer wages for restaurant workers) and the trust between restaurateurs and their patrons (which she thinks needs some work).
Dirt Candy’s move to the Lower East Side is big news for the neighborhood’s restaurant scene, which will also welcome a new and larger version of Mission Chinese Food this winter. Chin Chin, an upscale Chinese restaurant that’s made its home in Midtown for nearly three decades, also plans to move here in 2015.
Cohen knew she wanted to stay near her original location, and calls the LES “the last of the reasonable rent there is in Manhattan.” She noted the somewhat recent additions of vegetarian-friendly restaurants like Dimes on Division Street and El Rey Coffee Bar and Luncheonette on Stanton Street as indicators that Dirt Candy would find an appreciative audience among its new neighbors.
“This is going to be a really fun neighborhood,” she said. “Not that it isn’t fun now, but it’s on the cusp of getting ready to blossom.”