You’ll never look at eggplant the same way.
An eggplant dessert flambéed tableside makes its debut as the dramatic finale of one of two tasting menus when chef Amanda Cohen’s Dirt Candy — a Lower East Side mecca for vegetarians and veggie-lovers alike — reopens on Sept. 5 with a dinner service that eliminates a la carte dining.
Eggplant Foster reinvents the banana confection with peeled aubergines cut lengthwise, caramelized in brown sugar and butter, and ignited with rum. Cohen is pairing the showstopper with lemon ice cream, a saucy, basil-infused custard called creme anglaise, and thumbprint cookies filled with eggplant jam.
“We have a cart and everything,” said the chef, whose customers can choose their own dinner courses for the last time on Aug. 31.
Cohen, 43, said she wants diners to take a “leap of faith” and put themselves in her hands when they order the new Vegetable Patch menu ($57 including tip) featuring Dirt Candy’s greatest hits — portobello mousse, tomato cake with smoked feta, grilled and smoked broccoli dogs — or the more experimental, rotating Vegetable Garden ($83).
She promises the brave a performance.
“I want people to come in here and be excited – like, ‘Oooooh, I’ve never had this experience before, I’m giving myself over and giving over control” — and treat it like a special occasion,” Cohen said.
She’s driven by positive customer feedback for Dirt Candy’s existing prix fixe menu, the difficulities her staff encounters serving tasting menu and a la carte dinners at the same time, the desire to experiment more in the kitchen, and her own tastes.
In an ironic twist, the chef who spends five nights a week working in a restaurant kitchen may find her nights eating out to be more memorable than New Yorkers who rarely light their own stoves.
“It’s amazing that we have a city where people dine out almost every night of the week, but it takes a little bit away from the dining experience,” she said. “I still like getting dressed up and going out for dinner… I’m in my 40s and somehow that’s still important with me. It’s still an experience.”
She’s returned to The Grill at the former Four Seasons – “not a cheap restaurant” – because the presentation there is “insane and amazing all at the same time.” But she’s never once eaten at a Chipotle or Sweetgreen.
“People find that surprising,” she said.
Cohen sees Dirt Candy’s shift toward tasting menus as a risk that places her among the dining scene’s outliers.
Kevin Dugan, New York City Regional Director of the New York State Restaurant Association, said the concept is more prevalent in the city than it once was – and not just at Japanese restaurants offering omakase-style meals.
Millennials are driving that trend.
Citing a 2016 study that found that 72 percent of millennial respondents preferred to spend money on experiences rather than material things, Dugan said, “There is something to be said for putting yourelf in someone else’s hands. You’re going out for something that you’ll remember, it’s a little bit more special when you’re going to that top-end, and I think [top-end restaurateurs] are realizing that people will pay for that experience, that innovation more so than other generations.”
For those who would rather not grill their own sugar snap peas, pea pancakes and crispy pea skin on the table — as the Peking Pea dish on The Vegetable Garden menu requires — Dirt Candy will continue to offer an a la carte menu at the bar and during brunch.
Dirt Candy is open from 5:30 to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and from 11 a.m to 3 p.m. Satruday and Sunday at 86 Allen St.