Monday, August 30, 2010

Candle 79: Great Food, Chill Atmosphere, Top-Notch Staff...and Moby!

Although I don't find myself on the UES very often, Candle 79 is one of my favorite places to go with VM.  While many of our favorite vegan spots are enjoyably casual, we love Candle 79 for being a more upscale choice, and for epitomizing the genre of finer dining by being a wholly class-act, top-notch, vegan dining experience completely without pretense.

Per usual, the impeccable service started when I called to make the reservation.  The hostess was friendly, efficient, and accommodating.  Upon arrival, as promised, we were seated at our favorite table (I'm not telling, lest everyone want it) and, as a bonus, Moby was a mere two tables away.  It was good to be in the company of another vegan of taste and we thanked the hostess for seating us in the "celebrity section".

someone headed to a party
Our waiter, John, was completely delightful from the first words he spoke.  True to Candle 79 form, his service was seamless and seemingly effortless, our dining experience made more enjoyable by his personality and cordial conversation.

VM started off with the cherry mojito: sake, muddled cherries, lime, muddled mint, agave, and sparkling water.  While I enjoy the occasional fruity libation, I stuck with water; if I have one complaint about Candle 79 it's that their drinks simply don't floor me.  As I partake so infrequently, I like to be impressed!  This drink was no exception; I picked out some of the muddled cherries (yum), but the actual concoction was too strong and not sweet enough for my taste.  VM enjoyed, although I don't think she'd order again.  To their credit, John offered to make any necessary adjustments, but VM required only her requisite glass of ice for accompaniment.

The food:
I always look forward to the C79 brunch amuse bouche and this day's was exceptional: chocolate chip muffins!

2 muffins enjoying the view
Fresh from the oven, the chips were still melty!
We decided to share the stuffed avocado salad as an appetizer and it was a stupendous choice.  The freshest, smoothest, creamiest avocado half filled with a mountain of quinoa, corn, french lentils, grape tomatoes, radishes, toasted pumpkin seeds, and chipotle-avocado dressing on a bed of baby greens.  I accidentally cut the avo in half width-wise, and wound up gluttonously eating 2/3 of the salad.  Piggy.

As a huge falafel fan, VM couldn't resist the falafel sandwich: a whole wheat pita filled with Isreali salad (diced tomatoes, crunchy onions, etc.) and minted tahini, served with mesclun greens, and quinoa tabouli.  I don't know what made the patty orange, and the beauty of eating in an all vegan restaurant is that I didn't care!  I really enjoyed this sandwich; yep, I stole half (are you sensing a pattern?).

I ordered VM's selection from a previous visit, the wild mushroom and spring vegetable crepe served with mesclun greens.  As the seasons have changed since the last time we ordered this, so too did the fresh vegetables that overflowed from the delicate, ridiculously authentic crepe drizzled with spring garlic aioli.  VM liked this even more than the first time, and acquiesced to eating ever so slightly more than her usual taste smidgen.

Lest we be entirely too restrained with our healthy ordering, we augmented our meal with a must have: the crispy polenta fries.  Normally served with scrumptious chipotle ketchup, we also ordered creamy horseradish sauce to switch things up.  There wasn't a clear winner so we dipped intermittently (but never mixed).

A new favorite of ours is the brunch offering of yukon gold skillet potatoes, also a great vehicle for the chipotle ketchup.  They seem simple, but they are wonderful in their simplicity and unapologetic potato-y-ness.

We couldn't, in good conscience, leave without dessert.  So, I we decided on the oft-contemplated but never ordered, famous, chocolate-peanut butter bliss: chocolate mousse, peanut butter mousse, chocolate shell, and berry coulis.  Neither VM or I have ever liked mousse in general, but we have decided that this might be an egg thing because it turns out that vegan mousse is good!  So, we dove in with only slight trepidation and were duly impressed.

While VM isn't the chocolate/PB fan that I am, this dessert somehow satisfied both appetites by being just peanut buttery enough, without being overly peanut buttery.  I estimate that I could eat twelve of them at a sitting.

Candle 79 is truly a "nice" place, and the spot for when you're feeling like you want to enjoy an experience that is a cut above on every level.  Food, service, atmosphere: they've got it all covered.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Veggie Conquest V: Anniversary, Basil, and Foodswings!

We missed the first one, but VM and I have been proud supporters of Veggie Conquest, the NYC vegan cooking competition, since number IINumber III was a blast, and number IV was so much fun that I kicked back and relaxed, not even bothering to blog about it (sorry).  This latest installment was one of the best.

For starters, VM and I were lucky enough to have been invited to sit with Mr. and Mrs. M., co-creators of vegan socialite, entrepreneur, and VC founder: Jessica.  Much like a trip to Lula's, Veggie Conquest is a great place to meet new and interesting people; these dining companions were no exception.

Per usual, Joshua Katcher did an extraordinary job as emcee: effortlessly commanding the audience with his unparalleled charisma,  entertaining quips, and general swoon-worthiness.  Did I mention that VM is a big fan?   Actually, I'm a big fan: her fandom is cosmic.

The secret ingredient was basil and, per usual, the chefs' submissions were inventive and involved.  Not a pesto in the bunch, the creativity and variety of the "tastes" was further proof that I should never embarrass myself by being a chef; I belong in a taster seat indefinitely. 

The second course was so extraordinary, it may have even surpassed the one we enjoyed at VC II when a lentil dish prepared by a volunteer (not Susan!) bowled us both over.  We haven't stopped talking about it since, but have been too lazy to make it ourselves never attempted it.  This time around, in addition to the volunteers' submissions, Foodswings donated the world's cutest double decker cheeseburgers: each identically and artfully presented with like-sized accoutrements and the requisite party pick to hold it all together!  They also brought along Daiya mac & cheese with smoky bits of mushroom.  I really wanted to go back for seconds on both of these scrumptious eats, but even I was too full.  Suffice it to say that they were even yummier than they look.  Obviously, another trip to Foodswings is in order.

As if that wasn't enough, there was also a pasta & vegetable salad, sweet potatoes with pumpkin seeds, quinoa & veggies, and a kale salad with avocado dressing: a plateful of vegtastic goodness.

In addition to their company and conversation, our dining companions treated the entire crowd to a ridiculously fortuitous bonus: an incredibly huge and gorgeous Champs' cake in honor of VC's 1 year anniversary.

No mere "sheet cake", this rectangle of beauty boasted fluffy, moist, crumby vanilla cake with a just-sweet-enough berry center and cream cheese frosting: it was startlingly and absolutely delicious, even to this unapologetic chocolate lover.

If you're looking for a fun, delicious way to spend the evening with like-minded people, sign up for Veggie Conquest's mailing list so you don't miss out on the next event.  Or don't, because if I get shut out from buying tickets VM is not going to be happy!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Fairy Tale Eggplant: Not a Happy Ending

I'm not generally a fan of eggplant unless it's smothered in Daiya and tomato sauce, but when I stumbled upon this basket full of "fairytail" adorableness at my local farmstand, I simply couldn't resist the cuteness (no fairies were harmed in the making of these "tails").  Parmesan was out because I wanted to prepare them in a way that would showcase the diminutive size of the vegetable; so, I went with my lazy fallback of roasting.

I tripled the marinade for the Grilled Vegetable Napoleon in The Candle Cafe Cookbook (p. 9) and marinated 17 halved eggplants, 2 thickly sliced red onions, and 2 sweet Hungarian peppers cut into rings for one hour.

As my forbidden rice cooked, I baked all the veggies on a lightly oiled baking sheet at 350 degrees for fifteen minutes.  I flipped them, brushed with the marinade that was left over, and baked for another ten minutes.

I was a little disappointed that my eggplant didn't retain its beautiful color, not to mention the fact that it still tasted like boring old eggplant (sorry, not a big fan).  The peppers were a complete bust; I don't think they had any taste whatsoever: sweet or otherwise.  The star of the show was definitely the delicious onions.  I'd never prepared them this way, but would certainly do so in the future.

How could the adorable tails have come out so boring and generically eggplanty?  I was not going to be deterred; after an exhaustive search of the indexes of my favorite cookbooks proved fruitless, I turned to Google.  There I came upon Rachel Rappaport's delicious-looking fairy tale eggplant recipe and, with some personal guidance from her, decided to give it a try.  She suggested that I make a concerted effort not to overcook the tiny eggplant (easier said than done for this chronic over-cooker) and resist cooking them skin side down.

So I restocked at the farmstand, this time choosing cubanelle, sweet banana, and cherry peppers to go with the red onions.  I followed the instructions for the eggplant to a T, cooking everything else separately.  Clearly there is something inherently wrong with me because a couple of minutes in my 'plants had already gone from purple to brown.  Grrr.  I completed the dish, resisting the urge to toss the whole thing mid-prep, and served it upon jasmine rice.  The sauce was wonderful and so too were the onions and peppers; once again, the eggplant was the glaring disappointment.

I think I'll embrace my original disinterest in eggplant, unless it's smothered in Daiya and tomato sauce...preferably prepared by someone else.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Vegan Treats Continues to Rock

I've been an awestruck fan of Vegan Treats ever since the first slice of cake passed my lips, and I blog about them pretty often.  Sure, you can find Vegan Treats across the country (perhaps beyond?), but a visit to their "home store" is a must for all sweets-loving vegans.  It has occurred to me that for those of you who have never had the pleasure of visiting their retail shoppe in Bethlehem, PA, you might not understand exactly what makes this vegan Mecca so extraordinary.

Well, my friends; let me try to show you a typical visit's bounty:

Yep, that's a soft-serve machine in the left corner.

buns, donuts, cakes, brownies, crumb bars 

As if that isn't enough:



truffle munchkins*
Vegan Treats is a true pioneer of delicious, dessertous, vegan baking.  The tasty quotient is not only sky-high, but extremely consistent.  Even better, they don't rest on their laurels.  I have never visited the shop when there weren't at least five new things to try...allowing you to always enjoy longstanding favorites, as well as giving you the opportunity to find new ones regularly (so I go there alot, mind your own beeswax).

On this particular visit I enjoyed a chocolate, chocolate chip cheesecake cupcake, a chocolate hazelnut truffle munchkin* (there's half missing because, gasp, I shared), and an Entenmann's style chocolate-coated angel's food donut.

The take home booty
*Obviously Vegan Treats doesn't call these things truffle munchkins (not sure what they call them), but they seem like a cross between a rich, decadent truffle and a moist, gourmet donut hole.  I've had the white chocolate, coconut, vanilla version before and this was its distinct opposite: decadent in equal measure.  Imagine the most succulent, dark, chocolatey cake you can imagine: rolled in perfectly toasted hazelnut bits.

And who can resist a Vegan Treats cake that looks like it's been gift wrapped?  I certainly can't.  I honestly have no recollection of what this cake is called; but, having just eaten a truffle munchkin, I was even more gaga than usual over chocolate hazelnut and therefore had to bring home this giant, gorgeous, petit four masquerading as a cake.

Not as hazelnutty as it was chocolatey rich, it could give their Death by Chocolate a run for it's money (I still love you, DBC!).

Brace yourselves for this next one.  It was kind of mysterious looking and my inquiry yielded the following description: caramel cheesecake, a layer of caramel, marshmallow whipped cream (my FAVORITE), surrounded by swiss chocolate.  For some reason, I was under the impression that there was a kind of decorative, cardboard cone holding all of this deliciousness in: not so.  That is the chocolate!

I delicately cut into it to reveal pure scrumptiousness.

dripping caramel

Already crazy for VT's cheesecake, this one was the smoothest, velvetiest one I have ever had.  So shiny from the caramel, it almost looked like flan: minus the jiggly grossness (due to said jiggliness I have never eaten flan, so this is purely a visual comparison).  As you can see, the caramel could not be controlled.  Fret not, nary a drop went to waste.  And the chocolate?  Oh, the chocolate.  My favorite whipped cream paired with chocolate?  Let's just say that this was one of the best things I've ever had the pleasure of eating from VT. 

oozing caramel

In conclusion, Vegan Treats rocks.  Frankly, I think they should trademark the term "Vegan Treats" because it's a little disheartening when people refer to another dessert as a "vegan treat", only to find out that it's far from it.  I, for one, never label my own atrocious baking with the sacred phrase!  Not that other vegan baking can't be good (mine excluded), but since VT is so recognizable-- can't we agree on another non-specific term to use when referring generally to vegan goodies?  Okay, obviously "goody" is not going to work, but you know what I'm saying.  This way, there would be no disappointment when someone promises you a vegan "treat"... and it turns out to be a horrendous embarrassment to veganism crap.  Until then, much respect to the real Vegan Treats for making me a proud and satiated vegan.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Rose City Chocolate Store Closes; Another Door Opens Across the Street (or something like that)

I was about to take a drive up to the Rose City Chocolates retail store in Boonton, NJ the other day when it occurred to me to check the hours.  I called the 800 number and the woman I reached on the other end was in West Virginia!  It turns out that the Boonton store has closed.  Thankfully you can still order all of their delectable vegan chocolates online (phew!), but there's something to be said about walking in and picking them out on a whim.  Luckily, Bobby's Main Street News (across the street from the former Rose City location) has decided to carry the treats!

As you can see, there are plenty of chocolates to choose from: about half of this spread is vegan, if not more.  Everything is clearly marked, but Bobby is super-prepared for wary vegans: with ingredient lists at the ready.  You can mix and match a bag full or a box (for a gift or if you're feeling fancy) and he promises there will be even more varieties available once cooler temperatures are on our side.  And by "our" I mean chocolate (obviously).  Also, the lady from the company tells me they are working on developing even more vegan flavors.  To that I say, "Hurray!", and, "Caramel, please!"

Thanks to Rose City for existing, and now also to Bobby (that's him in the personalized shirt): for carrying on the vegan representation in Boonton! Bobby, I was too overwhelmed with chocolate when I was in I forgot to tell you that my faves are the hazelnut crisp and the santiago hazelnut crunch; you should add them to your stock because they are incredible and I can eat my weight in them.

Oh, and check out this bumper sticker I picked up while I was there; see how cool Bobby is? Go now!

Monday, August 16, 2010

NJ's Veggie Heaven: Hell?

Years ago, on the recommendation of non-vegan co-workers, I went to Veggie Heaven in Parsippany, NJ.  I chose a myriad of things to try, but only liked one: minimally; I never returned.  That location has since closed, but I recently had the opportunity to visit the Denville location with a vegan friend, the swell @arielaisawesome.  She had visited another location in the past and was very complimentary about the experience, so we decided to punctuate our day of sweets-eating with some vegetable grub.

The first taste of the visit was the water; one swig revealed it to be severely dreadful, Jersey, tap water.  Now I realize we were in Jersey so that was to be expected, but what was not anticipated was the fact that it was completely unfiltered.  Severe gag alert; this was a no drink zone.

Next up was the complimentary...lettuce?  It looked like wilted, pale shreds of iceberg, but it tasted like cabbage soaked in vinegar; a poor man's kimchi?  I was hungry and ate most of the bowl, but my companion's meager taste wound up understandably spit into her napkin.

We started with the bamboo and tofu soup for two, both of us expecting an avalanche of delicious bamboo shoots.  Instead, we were greeted with this startling bowl of non-shoots:

We didn't know what the spongy masses were, but they were stretchy, chewy, and decidedly not bamboo shoots!  I could not eat more than the initial taste, which was wholly unpleasant; the rest stayed in my bowl.

We asked the first waiter we saw about the absence of the shoots and implored him to tell us what in the hell what exactly the unappetizing masses were.  He responded by chuckling, then condescendingly asked us if we were expecting the bamboo to look like the decorative bamboo on the windowsill.  Ignoring the slight, we soberly explained that we were expecting the familiar bamboo shoots.  His response was merely that what we were [not] eating was the type of bamboo that Chinese people prefer.  It was a meager explanation at best and, now that we know what it actually was, it doesn't even make sense.  Through her superior Googling skills, Ariela was able to determine that the slop was actually bamboo mushrooms.  Saying a bamboo mushroom is a type of bamboo is like saying a cherry pepper is a type of cherry.  And, for the record, the description of this dish on the menu did not include the word mushroom at all, yet it contained loads of enoki in addition to the bizarre, bamboo mushroom grossness (thanks again for the vomitous pics, Ariela; gagging at the thought of it).

When our waiter returned to clear the bowls of dreadful "bamboo" we explained how disappointed we were that the ingredients were not as expected.  Not at all concerned with our dissatisfaction, he didn't so much as offer a shrug of acknowledgment, let alone a replacement soup. Such a gesture would have gone a long way in making us feel as though our enjoyment was any sort of priority for the restaurant, but it's clear it was not.

Bamboo mushrooms or soggy socks?

I've been on the hunt for a Thai noodle dish served in a pure sweet and sour sauce, while my companion generally enjoys the type served with peanut sauce; the cold noodles with sesame sauce wound up being a hybrid of what each of us was expecting.  It looked a little strange when it arrived:

But once the flavors of the dark sesame sauce on the bottom were all mixed up with the creamy peanut butter sauce on the top, it became our favorite dish of the evening.

The scallion pancakes were a little more deep-fried than I expected (foreshadowing alert), but good.  Unusually, they were served with the thick, plum dipping sauce that usually accompanies moo shu vegetables.  We found a nice balance by dipping them in both that and the leftover sauce from the noodles.

We were both in the mood for General Tso's for dinner, but there was some confusion because the menu listed two kinds: balls and chunks.  I wanted to go for the chunks by default, but when the waiter explained that the balls were crispier we both agreed they would be more authentic.

We should have known when it took two hands to push a fork into one that we were in for trouble.  Unfortunately, the General Tso's Veggie Chicken (balls) wound up being severely over-fried balls of what may have once been some kind of mock meat, but had turned into what can only be described as unidentifiable masses of deep-fry-edness. 

When we sent practically the entire plateful of balls back to the kitchen and specifically asked for it not to be wrapped for leftovers, it was obvious that neither of us enjoyed the dish.  Yet, once again, the waitstaff neither registered or acknowledged that perhaps we should have been offered an alternative, or showed the slightest concern that we were about to leave as unsatisfied customers.

Finally there was our safety net, one of the more ingredient-filled, "fancy" vegetable fried rice options: the healthy heart fried rice, boasting broccoli, edamame, carrots, cashew nuts, pine nuts, and raisins.  The description looked incredible, but I'm afraid two of the most enticing ingredients: edamame and pine nuts, were missing from the dish-- along with any discernible flavor.

It was okay, but mostly dry and plain.  Luckily, when mixed with the only edible aspects of the General Tso's-- the sauce and the broccoli-- it was quite tasty.  Unfortunately, I do not consider mixing the salvageable portion of one meal with the bland, partial ingredients of another to equal a successful meal. 

Fortunately, the dining company was terrific and the conversation trumped the severe culinary disappointment (and I use the term culinary loosely in this instance).  After two, separate tries would I recommend Veggie Heaven?  Absolutely not.