Dirt Candy’s Amanda Cohen on Cocktails and Growing Pains

No meat. No tofu. No tips. At Dirt Candy in New York City, it’s just vegetables done right in everything from entrees, to cocktails, to dessert. Grilled radicchio ice cream with dill sprinkles, anyone? You’ll find it in Amanda Cohen’s “vegetable ice cream salad.”

June 16, 2015 ● 4 min read

No meat. No tofu. No tips. At Dirt Candy in New York City, it’s just vegetables done right in everything from entrees, to cocktails, to dessert. Grilled radicchio ice cream with dill sprinkles, anyone? You’ll find it in Amanda Cohen’s “vegetable ice cream salad.”

We talked to Cohen about the challenges of scaling up to her new, more spacious setting in the Lower East Side, her creative process and the one vegetable she would never make into ice cream.

Chefs Feed: What has been the most difficult part of scaling up the number of seats available at Dirt Candy—from 18 to 60?

Amanda Cohen: At the risk of sounding like a hippie, the hardest thing was figuring out how the new space wanted to work. When we moved, I thought that this would simply be the original Dirt Candy, only bigger, but from day one I had a gut feeling that something was off.

This is not the original Dirt Candy. There was a painful trial and error period when I was adjusting prices, menu layout, staffing, and portion size, but about six weeks ago, suddenly everything clicked. Our check averages went up, we started getting more customers, and the dining room started feeling fun.

It’s a painful, strange process, but it’s vital. I think some restaurants don’t take the time to do this and the result is a dining room that feels like a dead zone.

CF: What’s something you can do now, in your bigger space, that was harder or impossible to do at the old, smaller space?

AC: Everything? We have a bar with vegetable cocktails. We have a big wine list with a focus on natural wines. You aren’t sitting on someone’s lap at the banquette. Everyone in the dining room doesn’t know exactly who is in the bathroom at all times.

In the kitchen, we’re able to play a lot more. Our desserts are more ambitious because we have more (and better) freezers.

CF: How do you go about creating new vegetable-based dishes without relying on crutches like fake-meat substitutes?

AC: It is so hard to break the tyranny of that big piece of protein in the middle of the plate. One of the ways I get started on a new dish is to make a single vegetable the centerpiece so that, say, radishes form the backbone on the plate.

What can I do with them? Spiralize them, sautée them, make pesto out of their greens, serve them mashed, raw, deep fried, make radish broth. That’s one starting place. Another is to keep in mind that the big piece of protein is a French tradition. So I look to other cuisines for inspiration: Chinese, Indian, Mexican, Filipino. Once you get your head out of Europe, the list is endless.

CF: Do you ever serve tofu at all?

AC: I did at the original Dirt Candy, but at the new Dirt Candy tofu is not on the menu. There are so many other vegetables to play with, and it’s so difficult to do tofu right that I’ve decided to let it go on vacation for a while.

The "Forager's Salad" at Dirt Candy in NYC. This version is made with wisteria, pickled knotweed, vetch and artemisia. Photo courtesy of Dirty Candy.

CF: What’s one summer vegetable that you’re excited about cooking with?

AC: Tomatoes! We do a tomato cake served with fresh tomatoes and smoked feta. I wait until the good tomatoes show up to make it, but once that dish hits the menu, my customers know that summer has officially arrived.

CF: Is kale overrated?

AC: Kale salad is definitely on every menu in town, which is why at Dirt Candy we make kale matzoh ball soup. I use kale to make matzoh balls, then they’re served in a kale-galangal broth. A salad doesn’t bring out much flavor in the kale, but the way we prepare it, it gets a lot of earthiness into the matzoh balls and a lot of brightness into the broth.

CF: One of the new cocktails is a “Kentucky Lemonade,” which is bourbon with roasted lemon and beet juice. Why do you roast the lemon and do you use yellow beets?

AC: Roasting lemons brings out a very different flavor in them. Instead of being completely sour and tart, the lemons caramelize and develop their own natural sweetness. For the beet, we use red beets. The flavor is the same, and I like the blast of root vegetable earthiness it gives the cocktail.

CF: How did you develop the vegetable cocktails?

AC: I am not into fancy cocktails. I like wine, beer, and Bloody Marys. The original cocktail list here was simply old fashioned cocktails done right: martinis, margaritas, Long Island iced tea, Old Fashioneds. But people kept asking for vegetable cocktails.
Part of the process of adjusting to the new space was adding vegetable cocktails to the menu. I really thought people would not want them, and it was refreshing to see that after 15 years in this business I am still capable of being 100% wrong. They’re our biggest sellers.

CF: Who writes the descriptions in your wine list? They’re tantalizing and hilarious! Such as, “it’s a big glass of midnight that lands on your table and wraps you in its cape, like batman. Or dracula.”

AC: I do. I always want to try new wines, but I feel like a dunce going to a restaurant and getting a wine list that’s just a long list of names, vineyards, years, and varietals. My eyes glaze over and I always wind up playing it safe. I try to write the kind of descriptions that I’d want if I was out at a restaurant and looking for a new wine to try.

CF: There’s a “vegetable ice cream salad” on the dessert menu right now. Is there any vegetable that you would never make into ice cream?

AC: Cabbage. Cabbage will never be a delicious ice cream.

CF: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

AC: Only that I feel like Dirt Candy is flying right now. The kitchen and dining room are having a blast, and it’s kind of like being on a roller coaster.

Dirt Candy has a reputation for being a tough reservation, but that’s not true at all. I’ve got a bar, a chef’s counter, and 60 some-odd seats. And every night I hold some of those for walk-ins. There may be a wait, but we do everything in our power to seat everyone who comes through these doors.

Interview by Sara Bloomberg.
Photos courtesy of Dirt Candy.