I’ll admit to feeling a quick flutter of excitement when friends suggest eating together and the expectation is that I chose the “perfect” spot.
I rapidly flip through my mental rolodex, wondering if they want the meal to comfort them or blow them away with offbeat creations? Do they want a hip, cacophonous environment or a conversation friendly dining room?
When I ask these questions, I often get the hand-wave and hopeful “YOU chose”.
So when S challenged me to select something on the Upper East Side of Manhattan recently, I thought of Candle 79 since it is right in her neighborhood and one of my faves. I asked if she had eaten there. Her hesitation was followed by, “It’s that vegan place I walk by every day, right? I’m not sure I would know what to order.”
Pre-conceptions about vegan cuisine (lackluster, colorless, unsatisfying) still abound but are quickly dispelled after eating at Candle 79. Their first floor bar offers organic wine, beer, sake and spirits. Warm yellows and orange tones welcome and soft surfaces hush the din from the busy intersection of 79th and Lexington Ave.
A long staircase leads to the second floor dining room with expansive windows overlooking the street. Friendly and knowledgeable servers take the time to explain daily specials after asking if either of us have any food sensitivities or allergies. It’s easy to settle in and get comfy in this oasis of calm.
The predecessor to Candle 79 is Candle Cafe. I often stop in for lunch or order out for dinner. It was launched in 1993 when owners, Bart Potenza and Joy Pierson won $53,000 in the New York Lottery on a single ticket that was purchased on one very lucky Friday the thirteenth. Their vision of an organic, vegan, ingredient driven restaurant materialized in Candle Cafe.
In 2003, Candle 79 was born. Like sisters, the restaurants share many traits but are distinctly different. This fine dining environment bumps up the experience while expanding the menu. It’s unhurried service and comfortable seating invites you to linger and savor the experience.
I share the Candle values for eating seasonal, local, plant-based cuisine. And although I am an omnivore, albeit a kosher one, I feel a thrill of expectation each time I enter Candle 79, knowing that everything on the menu is fair game. And introducing a skeptic to the variety and depth of veganism is part of the fun for me.
We started with Vegetable Nori Rolls, neatly julienned raw veggies stacked and embraced in seaweed. Pickled ginger provided a tangy counterpoint.
We chose the Stuffed Avocado Salad from the six salads on the menu. Baby greens, quinoa, jicama, cranberry beans, toasted pumpkin seeds and grape tomatoes were piled into a perfectly ripe avocado half. The creamy avocado and toothsome quinoa lent the substance here, making this salad satisfying as a main dish.
We opted for the Orechiette Pasta special since it was so cold outside and we were curious about the non-dairy cheese. The pasta was loaded with wilted, sharp arugula, cannellini beans, roasted tomatoes, hedgehog mushrooms, and a parmesan-like topping of crumbled cashew cheese. I appreciated the mild chanterelle-like nuance of the hedgehog mushrooms, an ingredient we don’t often see.
S commented that the vegan cheese tasted a lot like the dairy varieties we are accustomed to. She was really getting into her vegan experience as we tasted and commented our way through more dishes.
We were attracted to the flexibility of the Market Plate, and indeed, our server commented that it was the most popular dish on the menu. This abundant serving arrived with our four selections (of 12 items to choose from).
We opted for herb roasted brussel sprouts, ginger miso-grilled tofu, quinoa pilaf and polenta fries. The polenta fries were a stand out with their golden, crispy crust and creamy herb flecked polenta on the inside.
Unfortunately, the dressings lacked character and body. When I read “chipotle avocado” or “live jalapeno” I want more punch, but no dice. The Market Plate allows for variety, if not an abundance of flavor. Straightforward is likely the point here, and sometimes there is a place for that, too. It’s just not my thing.
And for all of you non-believers, vegan desserts are the true test. I asked S about this and she waved dessert off like a pesky fly. “Can’t be good without the dairy,” she proclaimed dismissively.
So naturally, I insisted on dessert and we landed on the Chocolate Peanut Butter Bliss. This signature dessert is a decadent treat. The candy like foundation and shell of semisweet chocolate encases silky peanut butter mousse. The texture is coaxed along with tofu, lending silkiness. Maple syrup adds a sweet richness.
Simpler desserts are also available in the housemade ice cream and sorbet sampler but if tasting can convert the non-believer I say, opt for one that you know should be creamy and decadent. You’ll be surprised by the magic worked in this vegan kitchen.
Recipe photo of Paella (below) is reprinted with permission from Candle 79 Cookbook: Modern Vegan Classics from New York’s Premier Sustainable Restaurant by Joy Pierson, Angel Ramos, and Jorge Pineda, copyright © 2011. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group. Photo credit: Rita Maas.”
- 2 ears of fresh corn, husked
- 1 1/4 teaspoons saffron
- 1 cup hot water
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/2 pound oyster mushrooms, stemmed and chopped
- 2 1/2 teaspoons sea salt, plus more for sautéing
- Freshly ground pepper
- 1/2 cup chopped white onion
- 2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
- 1 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
- 1 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
- 1 1/4 teaspoons smoked paprika
- 1 cup chopped cauliflower florets
- 1 cup chopped tomatoes
- 3 to 4 cups vegetable stock
- 2 cups Valencia or Arborio rice
- 1 cup ground seitan sausage, cut diagonally into 1-inch pieces
- 1/2 cup chopped scallions, white and green parts (optional)
- Lemon wedges, for garnish
- Using tongs, hold the corn over a gas flame and cook, turning, until nicely charred. When cool enough to handle, cut the kernels off the cobs and set aside.
- Soak the saffron in the hot water for at least 15 minutes.
- Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the mushrooms, season with salt and pepper, and sauté for 5 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl and set aside.
- Using the same pan, heat another 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, bell peppers, and 1 teaspoon of the smoked paprika and sauté until just tender, about 3 minutes. Add the corn, cauliflower, and tomatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and add to the mushrooms.
- Heat the stock in a saucepan and hold it at a simmer. Heat the remaining tablespoon of olive oil in a soup pot or traditional paella pan over medium heat. Add the rice and stir until well coated, about 30 seconds. Add the salt and the saffron water and cook, stirring, until it is absorbed. Add 1/2 cup of the simmering stock to the rice and cook, stirring, until the rice has absorbed it all. Continue adding the liquid in 1/2-cup increments and stirring until the rice has absorbed it, until the rice is tender, not mushy, and retains its bite, 25 to 30 minutes.
- To get the socarrat, or caramelized crust on the rice, uncover the pot and increase the heat to high. Cook until the rice crackles and smells toasty, being careful not to burn it. Add the mushroom mixture and sausage and stir. Cook over medium heat, scraping the bottom of the pot so the rice doesn’t stick, for about 3 minutes.
- Remove from the heat, cover with a kitchen towel, and let rest for 10 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasonings if necessary.
- Sprinkle the paella with the remaining 1/4 teaspoon of smoked paprika and the optional scallions. Garnish with the lemon wedges and serve.