by Mia MacDonald
[Ed. Note: Here is one of the best vegetarian restaurants you'll ever go to, anywhere. And you know what they say about New York... If you can make it there you can make it anywhere! But now, the great news is that this wonderful restaurant plans to incarnate itself into more outlets all over New York, making Candle Cafe a regular feature across the city landscape. New York City can never have enough vegetarian restaurants. Let's get out there, folks, and make those restaurants worth their trouble!]
The Upper East Side is not a place usually associated with sustainable living, populated as it is by huge highrises (many with "Trump" in their name), overpriced boutiques for clothes and gems, lavish steakhouses, and in winter, a bevy of fur, very little on the original owners. But as I found on a recent visit, there are some real jewels: organic markets, a vegan take-out shop, and Candle Cafe, an elegant pure vegetarian restaurant with some of the best food in Manhattan.
Even if Candle Cafe is off your usual route, it's well worth a special trip. The long, narrow restaurant immediately welcomes with the glow of its eponymous candles. Candles grace each table and hang in pairs, unlit, along the restaurant's undulating right wall which is draped in earth-hued canvas panels. Tables and chairs are bistro-black sleek, and the lighting is low. Candle Cafe is up front but not pushy about its ecological consciousness: the menu says the space was built with earth-friendly materials, and that recycling, filtered water and sustainable food production (organic, when possible) are central tenets of the business. The meals that result prove that sound principles can produce sensational food--and that health can be luscious.
The food. The food!
The stuffed mushrooms (appetizer, $6.95) were huge and delicious with a nutty center and rich wild mushroom glaze. The bean pate ($4.50) was thick and powerfully flavored--a mini-meal in itself. Entrees, some of which change every few days, range from tempeh burgers to seitan enchiladas, to a hearty spinach pie (sensibly priced from $4.75 to 11.50). The Paradise Casserole ($11.50), offered on a recent night, was described as "the best thing I've ever eaten" by a friend who's a gourmet cook. Layers of sweet potato, black beans and millet are served on a bed of greens with roasted root vegetables and wild mushroom gravy. The grilled tempeh portobello burger ($8.50), served in some of the best pita bread I've ever eaten, was thick, hearty and a bit sweet. Needless to say it was delicious, as were the grilled vegetables and huge tomato slice that surrounded it. The spinach pie with mashed potatoes and steamed vegetables ($11.50) was hearty and well-seasoned, a healthy, lighter redux of a classic, heavy British meal.
At Candle Cafe, the "sides," which in other restaurants are often perfunctory slices of lettuce or kale, receive as much attention from the chefs as the main courses. So packed with flavor and texture, they must be fully eaten. As a result, there's a danger at Candle Cafe of over-eating because the food is just so good. My suggestion is to make several visits, choosing a few dishes each time and leaving room for dessert. Another option, which I tried on a recent visit, is to eat several small dishes and a soup. The center of our meal was Wigmore's Living Foods Salad ($5.25 for small; $9.00 for large), a colorful, crunchy and "from the garden" plate of mesclun greens, several kinds of sprouts, carrots, raisins and scallions with a light (but as with all Candle Cafe's food, flavorful), balsamic vinaigrette. We added butternut squash soup ($3.75 small bowl; $4.50 large), a thin and delicious puree of the sweet squash with discreet spice, and bean pate, and left feeling sated and energized. Another strategy is to order a Good Food plate ($5.00 to $8.00). Choose between two and five dishes from an array of macrobiotic-type offerings: grain and bean of the day, sea vegetables, noodles, grilled bread and a huge array of sauces, including carrot butter, B-12 tamari Dijon and roasted garlic tomatoes.
Candle Cafe desserts look delicious, but I've only had room to taste one, an apricot-apple and granola confection which was a near-perfect blend of flavors: lots of fruit and lots of crunch. I've never tasted a crumble quite like it before. Also on the dessert roster are dairy-free kanten parfaits, pies, cakes and an array of cookies, muffins and brownies/blondies. Candle Cafe has a full juice bar, organic coffee and decaf, grain coffee, teas, and a menu of alcohol-free, health-packed fruit cocktails with exotic sobriquets. Catering and take-out pies and cakes are available.
Natalie Merchant and funky alternative rock play in the background, candles flicker, and diners are made to feel at home by owners Joy Pierson and Bart Potenza founders of the innovative Healthy Candle, the precursor to Candle Cafe.
My only complaint is that Candle Cafe is out of the way from where I live and work. Instead of sulking, I guess, I better just schedule another visit uptown.
Location and hours
Candle Cafe is at: 1307 Third Avenue (at 75th Street). Phone: 212-472-0970. It's open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, with brunch on Saturdays and Sundays. Monday-Friday 7:30 a.m. - 10:30 p.m., Sat. 10 a.m. -10:30 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m. - 9:30 p.m.
Publications at Candle:
Arthur Brown just came out with a new edition (and a new publisher as well) of his "Vegetarian Dining in New York City" (and not just for the yuppies). New York is the place to be if you're a vegetarian, and with Arthur's book, now we know why! The book is now called: "Good and Cheap Vegetarian Dining in New York." Contact him at 718-434-3180 or pick it up at The Candle Cafe.
Candle Cafe also has "101 Reasons Why I'm a Vegetarian" for sale. Hooray!
Mia MacDonald is an animal activist and writer who lives in Brooklyn. This article first appeared in Satya Magazine, New York City's publication of vegetarianism, environmentalism and animal advocacy. To subscribe for one year, send your check for $10 to Satya Magazine, P.O. Box 1771, New York, NY 10159.