Candle 79 Lights the Way with Paella & More

Candle 79 Lights the Way with Paella & More

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.

Photo: Mimi Giboin

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.

Click here for more information about Candle 79 and its sister restaurants, Candle Cafe. Click here to buy Candle 79 Cookbook:  Modern Vegan Classics from New York’s Premier Sustainable Restaurant.

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.


  1. While the owners of Candle 79 may have won the lottery, I felt that way after reading your work! Fantastic mouth watering descriptions (I always read your posts with a hand towel ready) that make me poised to run and eat vegan (and I am not a vegan). Unfortunately, it is 5:07 am and I am writing a post for my blog and dont think it is approriate to run into the City and wake up the owners of Candle 79 for a cup of coffee and a vegan omlet (not sure what that would look like). But Liz, I love your posts. Keep’em coming.

    • I am glad also! Scroll around my site for other vegan reviews. NYC is loaded with great places. Be sure to check out Blossom Cafe, Angelica’s Kitchen, and also in Union Square, Beyond Sushi (review coming up in 2 weeks).

  2. Absolutely yummy write-up + fantastic photos!! How I love this place. Reminded me what I’ve been missing. (It’s been awhile. Too long.) Definitely inspiration to return for another visit soon! Thank you Liz!

    • Many times I see people twisting their eyes in amazement the movement they hear someone say I am Vegan! This is because of lack of knowledge of the available offerings in the market place. This information will really help them to get out of their ignorance and help develop good and healthy eating habits.

      When people and friends around me come to know that I am vegetarian they often ask what you eat and how you meet your protein requirement so on….I take pleasure in explaining the variety of lentils and pulses which offer tasty protein source and the way to make them!

      I missed this place since I do not know during my Christmas vacation trip. Next visit I am there for sure!

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