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I'm a guy who likes to cook, eat, and drink, but not necessarily in that order. This blog is nothing fancy; just my random thoughts about anything that can be baked, roasted, or fried. Enjoy!

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Can't Hold a Candle to this Place!

One of my favorite foodie movies is Ratatouille. And my favorite character in that movie is the food critic Anton Ego (played by the late, great Peter O’Toole). One of the best scenes in the movie is when, after tasting the protagonist's eponymous dish, the critic sits down to write a restaurant review. It is perhaps the movie’s great soliloquy. Here it is in condensed form: 

In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. * * * But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the “new.” The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends. Last night, I experienced something new: an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions about fine cooking is a gross understatement. 

During a recent trip to New York City, I too experienced the “new” from an unexpected source. Upon the urging of someone whose opinion I value highly, I had lunch at a vegan restaurant called Candle 79. I freely admit, as anyone who reads this blog will quickly discern, that I am an unrepentant carnivore. Thus, I was skeptical, and it was with some hesitation that I traveled to E. 79th Street and Lexington Ave. for my first gourmet vegan meal.

I’m glad I went.

But first things first! 

© 2014 Chris Terrell
Seaweed Salad
I was pleasantly surprised when I was handed a bar menu with cocktails as well made and as creative as the dishes that I was about to try. Because I was on vacation, I ordered the Bluecoat martini. Bluecoat is an American Dry Gin distilled in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It is craft distilled using organic juniper berries, giving it that true earthy, spicy juniper flavor profile that good gin deserves. The New York Times describes it as “smooth, bracing and straightforward with a touch of heat.”

We then moved onto the vegetable nori rolls, made with pickled ginger, avocado wasabi, chipotle aioli, and tamari-ginger sauce. Wow! Amazing that these nori rolls did not have an ounce of fish. They were just as flavorful as any sushi roll I’ve had. We also had the steamed dumplings made with seitan, baby bok choy, and sesame-ginger soy sauce. Had I been blindfolded, I would have sworn the dumplings were stuffed with pork. (In saying that it tasted like pork is not to say that food must have meat in order to have flavor—the contrary. Vegan food, prepared as it is at Candle 79,  can have the same savoriness of meat dishes.)

© 2014 Chris Terrell
Kale Salad
Our entrees were the seaweed salad (carrots, cabbage, grilled shiitake mushrooms, edamame, radishes, wasabi leaves, miso lemongrass dressing, and grilled tofu); and the grilled kale salad (haricots verts, beluga lentils, red onions, kabocha squash, avocado, sunflower seeds, spelt berries, and chive vinaigrette). 

Both were delicious. 

As I mentioned earlier, we were on vacation. That means dessert! This was the biggest surprise of all! When it comes to vegan cuisine, baking would seem to present the biggest challenge. You must forego the wonder twins of baking: butter and eggs. But this dish makes it look easy. 

We had the Mexican chocolate brownie with caramelized bananas, french vanilla ice cream, candied pecans, and chocolate-ancho sauce.  Now, I know that the trend is to combine spicy with sweet. It can be a tricky path, but Candle 79 navigates it effortlessly. This is a great dessert that stands on its own. Overall, I found that this was probably the best meal I had while in New York. I found the flavors complex, the construction creative, and the presentation beautiful.

At the end of my meal, I humbly admitted to our server that I entered this restaurant with a hefty degree of skepticism for such a pro-meat kind of guy. She graciously replied that a lot of people who are not vegan come to Candle 79 simply because they like it. I can see why.

One of the best and rarest experiences of the gastronome is surprise and delight.  I experienced both that day in New York. I even bought the cookbook. And like I do with any new book I read the forward written by Rory Freedman. About the chefs at Candle 79, she writes: "Not only do we want their food, we also want what they have. We want that spark, spirt, and love." How true it is! That's what all good food is about, vegan or not.

I have the utmost respect for what vegans believe, and I appreciate that this restaurant welcomes vegetarians and omnivores alike. And while I don’t plan on becoming a full-time vegan anytime soon, I will  go vegan more often than not because of Candle 79. It is now part of my culinary repertoire. 

Candle 79 on Urbanspoon

Candle 79 can be found on the Web at http://www.candle79.com/index.html

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