As vegans, we are pretty spoiled here in The Big Apple. With the seemingly constant stream of fabulous new trendy vegan restaurants exploding onto the scene in New York City, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that we’ve had- and still have– a few classic, great vegan dining institutions. Candle 79 located on Manhattan’s upper east side has been a standard bearer for vegan fine dining for over 13 years. Michael and I have eaten at Candle 79 (and it’s sister locations Candle Café and Candle Café West) so many times we honestly couldn’t count. It occurred to us that we have been taking them for granted, having overlooked them as being the subject of a restaurant review on our blog. Determined to correct this gross oversight, we went out last Friday night for dinner at Candle 79 intent of experiencing it anew; approaching our meal just as we would any other restaurant we intended to review.
From the moment you walk in, Candle 79 lets you know that you’ve entered into a Manhattan classic. There is a lively yet chill vibe at the bar and downstairs banquettes. Upstairs the dining spaces are beautiful and the ambiance balances elegance with relaxed sophistication.
Dining at Candle 79 never feels rushed. The staff is clearly busy, but there is nothing harried about their activity. They are always super attentive, solicitous but not intrusive. The little details in service that distinguish such a Manhattan fine dining institution are everywhere, from the inconspicuous swapping of clean tasting plates and silverware, to the careful pacing of the food delivery.
We started our meal with the Fall Vegetable Ravioli and the Guacamole Timbale. The palm-sized ravioli were loaded with sautéed wild mushrooms and topped with cashew Parmesan and a truffled tomato sauce. There is a savory earthiness from the wild mushrooms the delivers a rich deep flavor. The tomato sauce is bright, offsetting the stronger umami of the ravioli, nutritional yeast and pasta. The result is a deeply satisfying robust combination of classic autumnal flavors. The timbale is a base of black beans topped with creamy guacamole, separated by a middle layer of diced cucumbers and jicama. The timbale is surrounded by ranchero sauce and topped with plantain chips, a most welcome upgrade from the original version that used tortilla chips. The cucumbers and jicama offer a nice coolness and crunch to offset the softer texture of the beans and guacamole. The ranchero sauce is subtle and mild. The generous portion of plantain chips is most welcome, as it’s always frustrating when the chip to timbale ratio leaves you wanting more chips.
We also tried the special appetizer that evening; grilled artichoke hearts, chickpeas, and zoodles sautéed with spinach and mushrooms topped with homemade almond cheese. The savory flavors work together beautifully but the standout for us was the almond cheese. Silky and sensual, this perfectly smooth whipped cheese is something they should package and sell on it’s own.
For our entrees, we decided to go with something newer and an old favorite. The Herb-Grilled Cauliflower actually began as two separate dishes, roasted cauliflower and risotto, but was combined into one that is greater than the sum of its parts. A wild mushroom squash risotto, mixed with cashew cream, kale-pine nut pesto and topped with frizzled leeks is the perfect complement to the perfectly roasted cauliflower florets. This decadent dish is quite rich but not at all heavy. The crispness of the frizzled leeks is a nice texture contrast to the soft risotto. Candle’s legendary Seitan Piccata is a must-have for any first timer; three lightly crisped setian cutlets served over garlic mashed potatoes, creamed spinach, and oyster mushrooms smothered in a lemon caper sauce. The briny capers and bright, fresh lemony sauce cuts the richness of the potatoes and seitan cutlets. The result is a full-bodied, hearty and filling classic. There’s a reason this is the dish they’re known for. Candle 79’s Seitan Piccata would make any omnivore think, “I could totally be vegan.”
On the side, we enjoyed the polenta fries as well as the roasted Brussels sprouts and almond cheese. Candle’s polenta fries are perfectly crispy on the outside and soft and creamy on the inside. Served with ketchup for dipping, they complement just about any dish on the menu and, in my book, can be a meal onto themselves. I’ve never met a Brussels sprout I didn’t like, and Candle’s are beautifully roasted. Topping these warm roasted sprouts with the cool, smooth almond cheese is simple perfection.
We each enjoyed our meal with a wonderful glass of an organic Montepulciano. It should be noted that Candle’s extensive offering of beverages goes beyond their impressive wine list, including beer, ciders and kombucha, fresh organic juices and “healing potions”. The restaurant’s commitment to fresh organic ingredients extends to their wine list that is filled with certified organic, biodynamic and sustainably made wines.
We ended our meal with and order of the Cannoli, and the Chocolate Peanut Butter Bliss. The cannoli were stuffed with a chocolate chip-vanilla cream filling, and served with coconut ice cream and a chocolate drizzle. The subtle light sweet cream contrasts the crispy flaky shell perfectly. The aptly named Chocolate Peanut Butter Bliss is pure heaven for any chocolate and peanut butter lover. A caramel base of is loaded with peanut butter mousse, chocolate mousse, encased in a rich chocolate shell, topped with salted peanuts and a caramel sauce and served with a raspberry coulis. The peanut doesn’t overpower in this Candle 79 classic. Rather, it complements the richness of the chocolate. Both layers of mousses have a smooth, light and airy consistency that is nicely contrasted by the hard caramel base. The raspberry coulis, sweet and fresh, enhances the deep richness of the chocolate shell. Both of our desserts were nicely complimented by a shared “Apres Vous”, a delicious dessert cocktail made of Araku coffee liqueur, Gozio amaretto, espresso, coconut milk, and vanilla agave. Be careful with this drink; it’s sweet and perfect for a coffee lover but it packs a punch.
In a city like New York where new vegan restaurants are vying to be the next, new, hot, “it” place, Candle 79 is not trying to be trendy or anything other than what it is: classic, dependable fine vegan dining. Devoted patrons of Candle 79 look forward to the reliability of the high quality dining experience that delivers time and time again. The menu is loaded with iconic dishes made from organic ingredients that have withstood the test of time in the competitive and critical world of Manhattan restaurants, but Candle always offers the promise of something new with their inventive and seasonal specials that allows the diner to mix it up. In an ever-changing world, it’s nice to have certain constants. For vegans around the world, Candle 79 is that timeless trusted constant that firmly anchors high end and organic vegan cuisine to New York City.
154 East 79th Street at Lexington Avenue
New York, NY 10021