Candle 79: Confessions of a Vegan Foodie in Paradise
I witness this scenario over and over again: A person is convinced that going vegan is the right thing to do; all of the arguments—for the animals, the environment, personal health—compel us into a foreign culinary territory. We purchase our arsenal of vegan cookbooks; we begin our exploration of tempeh, miso, beans and greens we haven’t heard of; we start adding watercress to our salads, use quinoa in lieu of rice; we make homemade seitan and spelt scones, and then the inevitable transformation takes place: we become a bona fide foodie.
According to a user-submitted definition at Urban Dictionary www . urbandictionary.com, a foodie is:
A person that spends a keen amount of attention and energy on knowing the ingredients of food, the proper preparation of food, and finds great enjoyment in top-notch ingredients and exemplary preparation. A foodie is not necessarily a food snob, only enjoying delicacies and/or food items difficult to obtain and/or expensive foods; though, that is a variety of foodie.
I meet a lot of people, myself included, who never cooked before becoming vegan, or even possessed a deep appreciation of food in general; now, I am obsessed with chopping vegetables, assembling complex, locally grown salads; kale has a hypnotic hold on me, and I dream at night of walnut crusted tofu with creamy peppercorn coulis. Page 30 of Friends of Animals’ very own cookbook, Dining With Friends: The Art of North American Vegan Cuisine, is illegible because I was so excited to eat the West African Peanut Soup that I couldn’t be bothered to follow the sage advice of the authors to puree the soup in small batches, or wait for it to “cool somewhat,” and as a result my blender exploded steaming-hot soup onto the ceiling and the dining room table, a big glob of sweet potato landing right onto the page (I did manage to salvage this luscious, delectable soup, but not page 30).
Luckily, there are restaurants, too, that cater to the vegan foodie, and perhaps the ultimate East Coast vegan dining experience resides in the Upper East Side of Manhattan in New York City. Candle 79 is a veritable gastronomic dream-come-true for vegan foodies, with its emphasis on healthy (no vegan junk food here!), flavorful and finely crafted recipes; the meals are perfectly textured, visually stunning and simultaneously subtle but rife with nuanced and surprising flavor.
The restaurant’s interior is charming and modern without a hint of stuffiness. There is a bar right inside the door, and since we arrived early and our table wasn’t ready, we helped ourselves to a few of the tonics and cocktail specialties. Among the four of us, we shared (another aspect of foodie-ism: passing everything around the table in an effort to sample everything) a Tropical Breeze (sake, pineapple, passionfruit, basil), a Mojito (sake, muddled mint, cane juice, lime, champagne) and a Passionfruit Spritzer (passionfruit, agave, aloe, sparkling water). All three were delicious and refreshing, not to mention a welcomed respite from the New York City heat.
We were seated in the upstairs portion of the restaurant, which had a privateness to it; the tables have enough space between them to carry on a conversation—an unusual attribute in New York City. Because our waiter told us Candle 79’s specialty is seitan, for appetizers we requested the Grilled Seitan Chimichurri, which was lightly enveloped by a citrus-herb marinade, and the Crispy Dumplings, replete with a balsamic reduction, carrot-miso sauce; both were outstanding.
For our main courses, we committed a foodie sin: While we ordered four, we chose only two seitan dishes, due mainly to the fact that our wonderful wait-person encouraged seitan gluttony, promising us eternal wheat-gluten bliss. The Seitan Piccata and Pumpkinseed Crusted Seitan are absolutely divine, inviting a state of food ecstasy previously unknown. The texture and flavor are absolute perfection: chewy without a hint of doughiness; savory but not salty; succulent without overwhelming the delicate fusion of spices and essence of fresh herbs, seeds and citrus—a most impressive feat.
We were stuffed. We ordered dessert anyway—the Live Nut Crumble, a decadent and rich concoction consisting of orange cashew cream, nut granola and a sour cherry port reduction, the perfect balance of sweet and earthiness; a reminder that the dessert course need not induce insulin shock. This vegan parfait was the denouement: Extraordinary, otherworldly vegan cuisine has arrived. How fortunate the whole world would be to experience this.
Perhaps Satya Magazine says it best, proclaiming Candle 79 “[o]ne of the best vegetarian restaurants you'll ever go to, anywhere. Even if Candle 79 is off your usual route, it's well worth a special trip.” As someone who resides approximately 250 miles away, I couldn’t agree more.