Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Candle 79, or: I eat the sublime

There are a few meals in life that teach you that food is joyous. These are the meals that show you how one slowly savoured mouthful can transcend the drabness of our usual fare. These are the meals that demand that you consider each and every flavour and texture, and these are the meals that have you emitting groans and moans of appreciation more suited to the bedroom than a dining table - but you couldn't care less.

Candle 79 is superlative. It is vegan fine dining with a menu that is an exposition of a true interest in food, and service that is, as well as being superb on its own, a shining beacon in the sludge of NYC hospitality.

Below: our 'compliments of the chef' dishes. The baba ganoush at bottom was so far beyond words we coul d only express our appreciation in cavema
n grunts.

Buzz and I were lucky enough to eat at Candle 79 twice. On our first visit we rocked up without reservations, wearing thongs (on our feet) and singlets, and totally waterlogged after being caught in one of NYC's August showers. We were still welcomed without second glance and soon forgot our bedragglement under the influence of the entirely vegan, organic wine list.

The atmosphere was light and the ambience warm. The decor was textured and opulent but not intimidating (ie: I am a messy eater. I spill stuff. I had no fear about soiling the tablecloths). Our waiter, whose name I've rudely forgotten, was fantastic - friendly, communicative, full of explanations, chatty when need be and able to withdraw at the correct moment. His was one of the few tips in NYC where I was delighted to part with every penny.

On our first visit my starter (what we'd call an entree but I'll stick to their words) was grilled trumpet royale mushrooms and sweetcorn, herb-sauteed shallots and crispy onion rings with chipotle aioli. Buzz had smoked hummus with paratha bread, olives, a whole clove of roasted garlic sprinkled with paprika, and red pepper. Both were simply outstanding.

Below: hummous with paratha and roast garlic

The hummus was a world away from the blandness of supermarket tubs - it was delicately flavoured with more than just smashed up chickpea and oil, and mixed beautifully with the not-too-oily, not-too-dry paratha. The roasted garlic was truly a masterpiece - soft, smushy, and totally chow-downable.

My mushrooms contrasted freshly with the sweetcorn, and the aioli was spot on.

Below: trumpet royale mushrooms

On our second visit the hummus made another guest appearance, along with my tempura zucchini flowers with watercress sauce, artichoke heart and fresh green tomato. The tempura was not at all oily or fatty tasting, was crisp, and almost cheesy. The artichoke heart was grilled to burnt-edge perfection and had obviously (obviously!) not spent its former life in a tub of oil. The green tomato was very much like a normal tomato in texture, but had a soft, sweet taste without the tomatoey bite. The watercress sauce asked me to swipe my fingers around the plate when I was done to make sure none was wasted, and I obliged without caring who saw me.

Below: tempura zucchini flowers

Our entrees (what we'd call mains) on the first visit were my live (raw) zucchini enchilada with cashew cheese, spinach, guacamole, chipotle sauce, cashew sour cream, pumpkin seeds, baby romaine and tomato-corn salsa, and Buzz's Moroccan spiced chickpea cake with toasted red pepper, coconut curry and apricot chutney. This, also, almost made another appearance on our second dinner, but for my insistence that he, and therefore I too, get to try something else. The chickpea was not too spiced and full of rough texture, meaning it hadn't been pulsed to puree, and formed solid, good sized patties without being wither too crumbly or sticky. My enchilada combined the creamy cashew cheese and sour cream with the smokey, spicy chipotle, and gave me a much better idea of the potential of raw food.

Below: Moroccan spiced chickpea cake and raw enchilada

Our second visit our entrees were Buzz's summer harvest paella with valencia rice (and other stuff I didn't have time to write down!), and my pumpkin and cumin encrusted tofu with tomato broth and cilantro. It was here, and I hesitate to say this out loud, that we had the eensiest feeling that Candle 79 does starters to a gymnastic 1/10 of a point better than its entrees. Both meals were superb and in any other place would have had me somewhere a mile above the moon, but after the knockout blows of the starters, the entrees didn't quite raise their be-gloved fists in victory and cry out for Adrian.

The paella was a very fresh, juicy, crisp but not sharp taste, which brought out the summer vegetables well against the rice which can carry connotations of heavy winter food. The corn and sprouts maintained crispness as against the soft paella. My tofu was heavily and firmly encrusted, which on top of the soft tofu created a great texture almost reminding me a fine schnitzel crust, and was well contrasted by the cilantro and radish.

Below: encrusted tofu and summer paella

On both visit our entrees were accompanied by polenta fries, which were long cubes of soft polenta inside with a lightly crusted outside, served piping hot with a surprisingly plain (but suitable) sugo-like tomato dipping sauce.

Below: spinach (a side dish on our first visit) and polenta fries

As a generally savoury-over-sweet person, dessert is never really top of my menu. But oh sweet Baby Jesus, what these people do with chocolate is so good it's all 7 sins with a big dollop of drool on top.

On our first visit, emboldened by wine, I ordered an iced coffee and a fudge sundae, which duly came in a cocktail glass and dripping in perfect chocolate sauce and pecans. Buzz's pie topped with ice cream, was gobbled. Quickly. And so I have little to say about it!

Below: sundae and pie (sounds like a band name)

On our second visit desserts proved no less attractive. Buzz ordered a scoop of blueberry ice cream which was light and fluffy without imitating the consistency of dairy ice cream. The blueberry taste was fresh and, although I know it almost doesn't bear saying, clearly from real fresh blueberries. My chocolate and peanut butter mousse in a chocolate shell was a revelation - sure I left the restaurant certain that my belly was gonna pop and spatter on the subway, but if I hadn't I would never have known the sublimeness of PB mousse. The quality of the cocoa was evident, the chocolate shell was soft, the mousses (meesses?) were soft but firm throughout, and neither overly whipped nor sweetened.

Below: bluberry ice-cream and the mousse of a lifetime

My bestest, favouritest moment of both meals came at the end of our second visit when Salt'n'Pepa's "Tramp" came on - now if that's not fine dining then I don't know what is!

Candle 79 is all good words and things and tastes - it's what food can't be in the best of circumstances, and it raised my expectations of the every day.

Candle 79: 154 East 79th Street near Lexington Avenue, New York, New York, 10021. Ph: (212) 537 7179.

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