Candle 79 Review

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Header image for New York reviewsCandle 79

$120 for two, with beverages

Restaurant Type : Fine Dining | Casual
Diamonds : ♦♦♦♦♦♦

Rarely has whim led us so perfectly astray. A brisk afternoon gives way to a sudden downpour, and our stroll down Lexington turns into a dash for cover. We head for the first bit of awning in sight—a bit of corrugated scaffolding, and find ourselves directly in front of Candle 79. It’s just turned five, and though it’s early for supper, the warm saffron smell of the restaurant wafting out into the street pulls us inside.

Perhaps it is early, but it’s also almost fully booked. The Maître D’ asks if we has a reservation, and her eyes widen slightly at our audacity as we shake out our umbrellas and confess to having none. We shoot her a pathetic and desperate look. I can feel water from the rain running from my hair onto my face and squelching in my shoes. Our pitiable state softens her heart: “Can you eat within an hour?”

She has a table that’s turned over early and isn’t booked ’til 6. What beautiful happenstance.

We put our umbrellas in the bin, and cozy into our corner. A window seat with a bench along one side and a chair at the other, my partner sinks up to her ears in the soft upholstery of the bench, while I perch over the table on my more firm chair. The décor is warm, that sort of contemporary meets traditional style which seems to be de rigeur these days. Here, it’s been thoughtfully tailored to the architectural detailing of the space which is all wood framed windows and brass hardware. Colours of burgundy and cherry are set against white tableware, napkins and frosted glass. At first, it’s very nondescript, but at leisure, details puncture the environment and add interest—ikat woven upholstery on the benches, a leafy motif pressed into bevelled glass, and splashes of chrome.

Our server is dressed in restaurant black, pleasant but brisk, she reminds us rather sternly that we must be quick to make our selections, chew, and pay; while she sets down an amuse gueule of hummous on bite sized toasts. We don’t mind in the slightest about the press, and as she recites the specials of the day and become increasingly intrigued by the food. There is a ravioli with lobster mushroom, the chef’s hand-made pasta of the day is a pappardelle with local fungi, and the server’s passion for the food comes up in the brightness of her eyes and the upturn of her lips.

We order almost immediately, a salad, the ravioli, the pappardelle, and a dish billed as a blue corn polenta with molé sauce. She smiles, and disappears like a wizard from the Harry Potter novels—whoosh.

And pop—our appetizers appear as if whipped out by house elves—with a speed that makes us almost suspicious, though to be sure, it doesn’t take long to boil ravioli to order.

Ravioli at Candle 79

In fact, we needn’t have worried at all—the ravioli is the dish of the evening. We’ll soon be bored by it—as evidently everything at Candle 79 comes stacked—but here are two perfect ravioli on a plate, one atop the other like pancakes. They are pretty and appealing, a little of the sauce in between, and just enough tomato sauce at the bottom of the plate, rung around by a ring of bright green pesto. The pasta is obviously made in house, charmingly irregular and a rich saffron colour. It’s al dente and has presence in the mouth, but is perfect, neither too thick, or too chewy—sadly something many vegan restaurants seem to struggle with. If I’m honest, the sauce is a little runny, and the basil seems to have been thrown in wet—but the filling of the ravioli is sublime, the mushrooms have the faint taste of the sea, and they are suspended in a filling that seems to be a rich nut cheese. It’s well balanced, and perhaps we’re famished—or perhaps it’s the best thing we’ve eaten in New York. In hindsight, I’m certain that it was.

Mains arrive shortly after our last swallow of the first course. And this time I do worry, because though my plate is warm, my pasta looks like it’s sweat out it’s moisture, and my companions polenta has split in twain. It’s obvious the food has sat out on the pass for a long while, and though I understand how hard it is to manage timings, I’m a little disappointed that my meal has already been somewhat digested by the heat lamp.

Pappardelle But, oh pappardelle! The very name comes from gobbling things up, and I can’t wait to shovel the thick hand cut noodles into my mouth. What I expect is that perfect al dente texture of pasta in a sauce that’s generous enough to coat inch broad noodles, but also homey enough to complement this rustic pasta. It’s certainly homey enough—it’s like a warm bath on a plate, there are deliciously silken textures and sweetness. Delicious, but like a warm bath it would be so much better if someone would jump in and mess things up a little. None of the best parts of the sauce come with the pasta, the lobster mushrooms and broccoli being rather too large, and the sauce itself is somewhat inadequate, too sweet with corn and without any sour or salt to balance things out. I do gobble, for a bit or two—then I put down my fork, and end up not finishing the rest. The whole time I was closing my eyes and pretending it was more of the ravioli anyway.

“Do you want some of this?” my sweetheart asks, looking up over a giant portion.

Plate swapping, always a great way to spice things up. We pass dishes back and forth, for once avoiding knocking anything over. I smile at our success, and dig in to yet another stack of grub.

Blue Corn Polenta with Mole There’s something odd about the blue corn polenta, not the colour, or the concept, but the texture—a little too wet, it’s no wonder it has broken over the plantains and greens it’s perched upon. There are a fair number of components to the dish, and it seems they ought to all go together perfectly—avocado puree, molé, plantains, greens, polenta, mango salsa, and a little inadvertent sauce that’s run from something.

The avocado puree is fine, with a light velouté texture, and a slightly bright cilantro flavour. But really the molé, surely the heart of the dish, is … flat. There’s little more I love than a (vegan) molé, and I expect that heavyweight and unusual combination of flavours, from chocolate to almond, from sweet and sour to savoury, all scrambled together into something that pulls every taste bud together. This, I could take or leave, literally, it’s hard to tell a mouthful with or without, apart. There’s a faint taste of a roux, and even a bit of cinnamon flavour, but surely molé is more than gravy that’s run to close to French toast. In fact, as I eat, the dish takes on a sort of breakfast feel. The polenta is fine, as grits. I don’t particularly notice the greens, the salsa isn’t sugared, but without much additional flavour it’s sort of a weak compote, or an airplane fruit salad. It’s strange, because the plantains are the best thing on the plate, I fish them out from under the pile in fact, and quite enjoy them with the avocado & brown stuff they’ve chosen to call molé. It reminds me of a dinner once as a kid—a twelve year old with vegetarian aspirations at a fancy steak-house. A lot I’d eaten in the past, beautifully seared steak, a bit of salad with blue cheese dressing—and the only thing I ate on the plate, my first fondant potatoes.

My partner is smirking when I look up from my absorption with their buttery, caramelized perfection. Hmm?

“You were humming as you ate.”

If only the whole meal had ‘sung’ as did the ravioli, I might have broken into song myself. In fact, the service was amazing. Let me go on about this for a minute: it was brisk, but our plates weren’t taken until we were done, cutlery came with each course, or cups runneth over, our own server was pleasant, as were all the staff we encountered, and their was a palpable vide of welcoming, tempered by just the right touch of professionalism and competence. The meal itself was mostly delicious, it’s just—if there is a fault here, and I admit one must rather search to find it—it’s precisely this: I was left wanting things to be just a touch more interesting. I don’t mean more wackiness on the plate. I don’t need ten thousand components in every dish, or exotic ingredients—but molé ought to give your taste buds a workout, pappardelle ought to wake them up rather than put them to sleep, and I think the best restaurants kick them in the ass.

We’ll definitely be back. I’m still dreaming about the ravioli, but perhaps next time we’ll hunt the menu more thoroughly for some excitement—and we’ll make reservations.

4 on 6 diamonds. Far above average, but not quite up to expectations.



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