My friend Karin and I decided to enjoy a girls’ weekend in New York City. Both fans of opera, and Karin being a trained ballerina, our three-day adventure centered around Lincoln Center. I was very enthusiastic to see how the itinerary I had planned would unfold, from the classical performances to the restaurants I had chosen at which to dine. Karin expressed her exuberance as well!
Karin and I left sunny Florida early Friday morning and joined New Yorkers in the middle of a gray rainy day. After leaving our bags at the Empire Hotel (conveniently right across the street from Lincoln Center), we headed out to our first meal. We übered to Spicy Moon’s East Village location, a vegan restaurant that specializes in Szechuan cuisine. And what a great way to start our New York weekend adventure!
The dreary weather made a hot dish rather essential, so Karin and I both ordered a bowl of Spicy Moon’s wonton soup. We were surprised to see the large portion size; this flavorful dish warmed us up in no time at all.
Karin and I had a difficult time choosing from the list of buns, dumplings and wontons. They all sounded so good! We finally decided on a spicy tofu bun, a char sui shiitake bun and steamed vegetable dumplings. All three turned out to be great choices, but in very different ways. I liked the filling of the spicy tofu bun and Karin liked the fluffy texture of the char sui shiitake bun. The dipping sauce for the dumplings paired nicely with the ingredients inside.
Karin is rather knowledgeable about mushrooms and told me she had seen a fungi called hen of the woods while hiking. When she pointed out that the restaurant offered a bun made from this mushroom, we both simply had to try it. And we were so glad we did! The description from the menu stated what we were to expect: crispy lightly battered Maitake mushrooms with side of pao cai (sweet pickled ginger, chinese cabbage, and purple mustard greens). It was also served with spicy mayo. The presentation was so colorful and every bite was delicious!
We left Spicy Moon happy, full and warmed-up. Due to Manhattan traffic, it took us quite a bit longer than expected to get back to our hotel in midtown. After checking in and getting settled into our rooms, it wasn’t long before it was time to head back out to dinner at a fine-dining establishment called Dirt Candy. While this woman-owned restaurant is vegetarian, they have a vegan menu on offer. I was very excited to try their prix-fixe 5-course dinner, whose menu changes every season. We visited in time for their fall menu.
After experiencing the extreme traffic earlier in the afternoon, we decided to take the short subway ride, bookended by a short walk. The restaurant was easy to find and immediately upon entering, I enjoyed the warm, sophisticated and stylish atmosphere.
I loved the creativity of the cocktail menu, from the leaf peeper (bourbon, beet, maple and orange) to the teeny tiny turniptini (gin or vodka, picked turnip brine, dry vermouth). I ordered a 14 carrot gold cocktail with tequila, carrot, turmeric, lemon and black pepper. I enjoyed every sip! Karin decided to go for the wine pairing. The wine choices focused on women-owned wines and they truly did pair perfectly with each course. Karin was quite pleased.
Course One: Artichokes and Sunchokes
Dirt Candy’s culinary experience began with a sunchoke flan topped with seaweed caviar and crispy baby artichokes. I very much appreciated the contrasting textures of this dish; the flan was creamy and the artichoke was fragile and crunchy. Diners were also given a red onion tartare with orange aguachile, pickled pearl onion and avocado. This tiny appetizer was packed with big flavors! I must say that these two dishes were pleasant to look at and set the bar quite high for the subsequent dishes.
Course Two: Mushroom
The second course included a mushroom mousse crepe cake with bing cherry jam and grilled portobellos. A mushroom tea accompanied this beautifully layered dish, which frankly was such a lovely piece of art it was a challenge to bring myself to damage it with a utensil. The rich earthy flavors of the mousse crepe cake was a real treat for mushroom-enthusiasts like Karin and me.
Surprise Course: Carrot
The waiter brought patrons a carrot slider simply as a thank you for dining with them. This course consisted of carrot confit, yuba crisp and soy cucumber pickles on a carrot-sesame seed bun. A root vegetable-based dish seemed like a logical midway between earthy fungi of the second course and the leafy kale of the third.
Course Three: Kale
I told the waiter that I wasn’t the biggest fan of kale, so they had their work cut out for them. He left the table confident I would like the next dish, however, and he was not wrong to be so assured. The third course was nothing short of amazing! It consisted of kale spaghetti topped with spicy kale sausage, lollipop kale and macadamia nut-based cheese. Once again, Dirt Candy delivered a beautiful and savory dish with a wonderful mix of textures. I very much enjoyed this dish.
Course Four: Bell Pepper
The fourth course was perhaps the most interesting dish of the evening and we could taste the amount of effort that went into it. We were brought a stuffed yellow bell pepper with sticky rice, orange pepper-coconut sauce, lime and Thai chilis. The waiter explained that the bell peppers are first pickled for a few days before being grilled and stuffed. The result of this process was a highly unique combination of flavors and more than I could have ever expected from a stuffed bell pepper.
Course Five: Mustard Greens
I was surprised to learn that Dirt Candy had somehow turned mustard greens into a dessert. Our final course included a three-layered dish with a base of whipped grits topped with caramel apples and crowned with a mustard greens sorbet and mustard seeds. This southern-inspired not-overly-sweet creamy dessert was a great way to end our culinary adventure.
The wait staff exhibited the perfect mix of friendly, playful and professional. Both Karin and I were happy to read that Dirt Candy is a no-tipping establishment and pays its’ staff a living wage that even includes benefits. Staff members are also openly credited on the menu for their own creations as well. It sounds like Dirt Candy is not only a great place to dine, but also to work. I’m already curious about their next season menu.
Fully satiated, we took the subway back to the hotel to ready ourselves for the evening’s performance: Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker at the City Ballet. My mother told me that she took me to see this ballet when I was a little girl and although I don’t remember it, the dance moves apparently left quite an impression on me. I could be found in red boots jumping as high as I could around the house for weeks after the performance. I was eager to see it again so many years later. Seeing the Nutcracker was quite a treat for Karin too as she is an actual trained ballerina. Neither of us was disappointed; the music was great, as was the dancing!
I fell asleep Friday night excited for the next day in New York City.
Our second day began by exploring the Columbus Circle Christmas Market. I even bought my yearly Christmas ornament there, a new annual tradition Chrissy and I began in 2020, when we celebrated our first Christmas together. Walking around and seeing the various homemade gift ideas on offer brought back wonderful memories of the German Christmas markets I frequented when I lived in Berlin.
I was happy to discover that the food court was full of vegan options from Indian samosas to Belgian hot chocolate made with dark chocolate and oat milk. I took this opportunity to have lunch and began with a bowl of hot vegan Ukrainian borscht. My main course was a healthy portion of Indian chana masala and I was elated to come across German Glühwein, a must-have whenever I visited a Christmas market in Berlin.
Karin and I walked the two blocks to Lincoln Center in plenty of time for our first opera performance of the day: Verdi’s Rigoletto. This was Karin’s first time at the Metropolitan Opera and I loved seeing it through her eyes. We enjoyed the grandioseness of it all, photographing the elegant chandelier, and looking at displays of costumes worn by famous opera singers.
As we ascended the red velvet-lined steps to our seats in the very first row of the third balcony, I felt the rush of walking on hallowed ground. I recalled the numerous times I had climbed those stairs in the spring of 2019 for Wagner’s Ring Cycle.
The Metropolitan Opera performed an amazing Rigoletto! Everything from the sets to the musicians was top notch and exactly what one should expect from this fine institution dating back to the late 1800s. From my lofty seat in the first row of the balcony, I was overjoyed to watch a woman conductor enter the orchestra pit from stage right. During the intermission, I read that her name is Speranza Scarpucci, she is from Rome, Italy and this was her Met debut.
All singers seem to perform at their best (with the exception of the tenor who had a manager come on stage just after the intermission to announce that he was “suffering from allergies, but would complete the opera”). Lisette Oropresa, the soprano who sang the part of Gilda, was phenomenal! I first became acquainted with (and fell in love with) her voice when she sang the title role in Manon at the Met, when I saw it via streaming in a movie theater in my home state of Florida. What a treat to hear Ms. Oropresa’s in person! If I had to pick a single highlight of my New York weekend, it would be experiencing the richness of her amazing lyric coloratura flexibility as she carried her voice up to lofty tones so seamlessly!
We quickly grabbed a Lyft to head to dinner at Cadence, a vegan, woman-owned restaurant specializing in Black southern cuisine. I would describe the atmosphere as a blend of upscale, upbeat and casual. All the wines on the wine list are Black-owned and they offer a variety of cocktails. I tried the Queen Irma, consisting of a house-made limoncello, lemon, hazelnut, pastiche bitters, almond and baking spice. I thought the mix of flavors complemented each other quite well and the effervescence left a refreshing aftertaste.
A friend of mine, Diana Edelman, the proud founder of Vegans, Baby and who is a great fan of Cadence, recommended that we try the potato salad, the southern fried lasagna and the cornbread. So, we ordered all three plus the collard green wraps. A word to the wise: come hungry because the dishes on the menu are quite filling. The waitress also recommended that we each order two dishes and share, which we did. I only wish that they made sharing a bit easier by providing extra plates or simply separating the dish ahead of time as it was rather cumbersome to separate the potato salad for example.
I very much pleased with the potato salad. It felt wholesome and reminiscent of family-gatherings. I thought the crunch of the celery added a nice texture, balanced by the firmness of the potatoes and the creaminess of the dressing. I wonder why the chef at Cadence decided to use Vegannaise instead of making her own. In my opinion, a housemade vegan mayonnaise would take this dish to a whole new level.
I was impressed by the display of the maple buttermilk cornbread, which was served in a cast-iron skillet. Topped with vegan butter and infused with sage maple syrup, this cornbread was the perfect mix of sweet and savory. It was very filling and would easily warm you up on a cold day.
Our next dish to arrive was the collard green wraps, which were filled with succotash and rested in a chickpea miso broth. I enjoyed the earthiness of this dish and felt the saltiness of the broth highlighted the flavors of the succotash.
The southern fried lasagna, which lay in red wine bolognese and included pine nut ricotta and spinach, was another very filling dish. As you can imagine, texture played a major role in this dish with crispiness of the deep-fried noodles and the smoothness of the bolognese. Perhaps it was because I was already rather full by the time this dish got to the table or that I had built it up to an impossible standard in my head after several people recommended it, but I felt it was missing a “wow factor”.
One of my favorite aspects of Cadence, and there are many, is their mission. I like how they recognize the intersectionality of human and animal rights. This can be seen in the inclusivity of their staff as well, with over 50% identifying as BIPOC and/or LGBTQ+ and employees undergo anti-racism education. The following excerpt was taken directly from the mission page on their website and it’s beautiful:
“Animal rights, workers’ rights, and guests’ rights. Simply put, compassion is the ability to feel for another living being. Compassion as one of the core values of our company attempts to address questions we may have regarding the larger picture of the way society treats all living things—including nonhuman animals and the environment ”
After our carb-heavy filling dinner, we felt ready to brace the December cold and make our way over to Lincoln Center for the evening performance of Aida.
The overall performance was good – not great, but good. As always, the musicians played wonderfully. Michelle Bradley, who sang the title role, had a beautiful full-bodied voice, but sadly, she had some trouble with pitch in her higher range during the performance. The tenor, Brian Jagde, was the clear favorite. In my opinion, however, the two voice types did not mesh very well with the tenor having a tight, almost bleaty vibrato and the soprano having a wider fuller one. This made listening to duets featuring the two of them rather trying at times.
The star of the show, quite frankly, was the extravagance of the sets and the crowd scenes. While I was upset that two live horses were used on stage, it was hard not to be impressed by the grand processionals and dancers. This aspect of the production definitely lived up to the virtuosity of the romantic era. With two 30-min intermissions, watching Aida was a four-hour experience, letting us out a couple of minutes before midnight.
Our second day in New York City ended in an amazing way! Two friends of mine (Chelsea and Janette) from Maryland happened to be in Manhattan the very same weekend. Chelsea had just proposed to Janette a couple hours before we left the Met. Karin and I walked to a place called Lilly’s to meet my friends and toast the wonderful occasion. As we all clinked glasses, I realized that all four of us at the table happened to be engaged: Chelsea to Janette, Karin to Ben and I to Chrissy. Love was in the air!
Our final day began with a leisurely walk in Central Park. The sky was blue, the air was crisp and the energy was joyful. Exploring Central Park never disappoints me, whether I’m trying to get lost in the Ramble, taking a nap on the Sheep’s Meadow or people watching at Bethesda Fountain. On this occasion, Karin and I decided to relax on one of the many benches at the Imagine Mosaic, soaking up the sun and listening to the musicians play popular songs by John Lennon. It was wonderful to see that other visitors from all over the world where there singing along too. What a great way to start our final day in Manhattan.
I was so happy to lunch at my favorite restaurant in New York. Hangawi not only offers phenomenal vegan Korean specialties, but it also provides a Korean experience. This is obvious from the moment you arrive and take off your shoes. We were ushered to our submerged wooden table and we sat on comfortable cushions and perused the menu.
Big fans of sharing, Karin and I began our final New York culinary experience with Hangawi’s Korean pancakes platter. This included kimchi mushroom, leek and kabocha pumpkin with mung beans. Three sauces accompanied this dish: sesame, pineapple and onion. All three pancake types were fantastic and I very much enjoyed trying out the various sauces in combination with the flavors of each pancake.
The first page of Hangawi’s menu includes the following educational blurb about codonopsis lanceolata:
Codonopsis Lanceolata – todok in Korean – is a root found in the deep mountains of Korea. Since ancient times, took like ginseng in Korea has been sought after for its energy giving properties. In a vegetarian diet, todok is an important root nutrient which provides energy and stamina to the body. Todok is rich in calcium, saponin and fiber. It is an excellent winter food as it insulates the body from the cold, aids digestion and also protects the lungs. It has a unique woody fragrance and is chewy and fibrous. For this fall winter menu, we have specially flown in fresh todok from Korea.
We were convinced! So, we ordered todok salad which included the fresh todok they had flown in from Korea, cabbage and carrots in a bean paste lemon dressing. The result was a colorful salad with great textures and flavors.
We also could not pass up the rare opportunity to try dandelions in a dish, so we ordered the organic dandelion and avocado salad with ginger mustard dressing. Karin really liked this salad in particular and easily polished off the dish.
A huge fan of kimchi, I ordered Hangawi’s spicy kimchi stone bowl rice which included vegetables and mushrooms. The waiter brought the stone bowl to the side of our table, kneeled down and finished cooking the dish right there, adding two spoonfuls of spicy red sauce. Karin and I watched him mix the sauce into the rice and heard the sizzle of the food against the hot stone. We were also brought two types of kimchi for the table, one mild and one spicy. Both were delicious!
I loved our Manhattan adventure from beginning to end, from pushing through traffic in a Lyft to feeling lucky to get seats on the subway. I enjoyed worldly conversations with drivers from Algeria, Guyana, France and Nepal and loved hearing different languages at the Christmas Market. I even got to practice my German a bit as I ate lunch. I relished experiencing two operas and a ballet separated by a plethora of amazing vegan dishes at four uniquely distinct eateries. And nothing beats a leisurely stroll in New York’s Central Park. In short, our three-day New York excursion had everything I enjoy about traveling: good food, good conversation, top-notch entertainment and a tryst with nature.