Amanda Cohen, whose vegetable-focused cooking has earned her heaps of acclaim over the years — some even call her pioneering restaurant Dirt Candy "the best vegetarian joint in town" — had to shut it all down along with everyone else in March. Unlike many of her peers, however, Cohen really wanted to take her time, and get everything exactly right, before reopening again, and kept Dirt Candy closed through both Phase 1 and Phase 2.
Finally though, and much to the relief of the restaurant's fans, this past week Cohen reopened Dirt Candy with take-out, delivery and outdoor seating, offering a short but wonderfully summery menu, and, of course, the proper pandemic protocols to make both her staff and her guests feel comfortable.
"The actual re-opening itself was pretty fun and easy," Cohen told Gothamist. "The city agencies we’re dealing with have been great." But she noted that the road towards restaurants reopening has not been a smooth one. "Getting here hasn’t been easy for anyone," Cohen said. "I knew we weren’t opening before July 8th, so unlike a lot of restaurants we didn’t build our outdoor space then have to rebuild it when the city guidelines changed. And back in May you had five different city agencies debating which one would monitor COVID compliance. Now, it turns out that four out of the five of them will."
The bigger hurdle may have been rethinking what Dirt Candy was going to be now. "I’ve already had my zen acceptance moment that I’m no longer running a fancy tasting menu restaurant and Dirt Candy has morphed into something new," Cohen told us. "Our focus right now is on stoner sandwiches, the kind that require ten napkins to eat. We’ve got a soft serve machine arriving in a couple of weeks, the slushee machine is in full effect with vegetable and vodka slushees, and I’ve got plans to do some outdoor grilling and a corn boil one night in August." Cohen said they will also be rolling out a dinner menu with five course meal kits that will change weekly.
Right now, there are fewer than a dozen items on the Dirt Candy menu — and that includes four desserts — but everything is appealing. Three sandwiches are available: a Tomato with smoked feta, a Cabbage with tofu, avocado, and kimchi, and, my choice while I dined at a sidewalk table last week, The Greens, a sweet and spicy monster stuffed with stir-fried vegetables, crisp iceberg lettuce, and sesame and mint adding additional depths of flavor. Truly a juicy delight.
There's a House Salad with grilled tofu and fermented black bean dressing, or you can get one of the greatest hot-summer-day dishes of all time, Cohen's Cucumber Salad, which is so much more interesting than it sounds. In addition to the titular fruit, the concoction also features chunks of actually-good honeydew, green croutons flavored with more cucumber and something sweet, a base of thick, citrusy cream, and a drizzle of Sichuan mint oil tying it all together.
And then there's a box of Dirt Candy's long-standing best dish, the Korean Fried Broccoli, each bite delivering a rich, fiery, and crazy garlicky wallop.
If you just want something sweet (but not too sweet) the Golden Cupcake is a corn-based, pudding-filled riff on the Hostess classic, and the Caramel Popcorn Blondie satisfies as well. Wine, beer, and boozy "adult slushees" round out the fun.
The logistics here are increasingly familiar. Masked and distanced drinkers and diners order at the register just inside the front door, then grab a table either on the sidewalk (which is nice and shady midday) or within the parking spot garden, which is impressively blocked off from Allen Street traffic by thick plantings and pretty flowers. Your food, which is ready quickly, arrives bagged up for takeout but you can obviously also unpack everything and eat it on site. Weather-permitting, of course.
"Over the short term, I find myself caring about the weather with all the passion of a fisherman," Cohen told us. "I mean, what do I do with my diners when there’s a downpour? It’s not like I can move them inside. So my entire short term brain is consumed with watching the skies and refreshing my weather app."
For now, Cohen said, "If things stay the way they are, we can make it through the end of the year," but added that this is not a long term solution for any restaurant, "not even close."
As for the long term, she told us, "Every restaurant in the city is living on borrowed time, so you can either drink yourself into a dark hole, or throw a party while it lasts. Some places are doing great with outdoor dining, but for the rest of us this is afterschool money. I don’t know what will happen in October when outdoor dining ends, so my chefs and I are super-focused on the summer and being grasshoppers. We’ll party while it’s possible and give our customers the best experience we can, and when the music stops we’ll figure out what's next. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that everything changes, all the time, in ways we’ve never anticipated."
Dirt Candy is located at 86 Allen Street, between Grand and Broome Streets, and is currently open Tuesday through Saturday from noon to 8 p.m. (212-228-7732; dirtcandynyc.com)