Within about five minutes of moving to New York, you realize that almost any restaurant or bar worth going out of your neighborhood for is located below 60th Street, in Queens or--increasingly--in Brooklyn.
This is really unfortunate for anyone living in the doldrums of the Upper West or Upper East Side. (Maybe that's why the rent is so cheap up there?) It's also annoying when you're visiting one of the many great museum institutions. When you're done walking miles around the Met, or spiraling up the Guggenheim, or wandering the Frick, where do you go to get equally engaging food?
I might direct you to visit one of the Candle restaurants. There are three of these deceptively classy, healthful and vegan restaurants in the city--one on the Upper West Side between 89th and 90th, and two on the Upper East Side on 75th and 79th.
I can't speak to the two Candle Cafés, not having been to either. (Though vegan cookbook author Terry Walters is definitely a fan.) But I can tell you a bit about Candle 79 on Lexington Avenue, having been there twice--once with my mother after a day at the Met, and once with a friend.
The interior is typical UES fare, with a maroon and gold color scheme, dark wood accents, and wallpaper, and a couple of gold Buddhas thrown in. The crowd is mostly ladies who lunch from their early twenties up to their 60s, and a few businessmen.
For drinks, you can have a glass of wine, or choose from a list of "eco cocktails," like the Rhubarbarama, with Crusoe organic white rum, hibiscus liqueur, lime, ginger-agave, rhubarb purée, tarragon, soda and ice. It was delicious, with a sweet, refreshing flavor. If you order the Reforestation, with Veev Açai spirit, wheatgrass vodka, muddled mint, ginger-agave, lime, and soda, the cocktail menu tells you a tree is planted. Gimmicky, but for all the right reasons. As for my mom's regular tea, the waitress offered it with a choice of sugar, stevia or agave, instead of the usual pink packets.
The menu consists of vegan twists on classics, like spaghetti and wheatballs, nachos with "mozzarella," and BBQ seitan burger with polenta fries.
The waitress was sweet and helpful, answering all our questions, and inquiring about any allergies, and our food came out within 10 minutes of our ordering. The pasta al cheppo special, with porcini mushrooms, cashew parmesan, basil tomato sauce, zucchini, and shallots was good, though really mild in flavor--nothing special. The fried dumplings with seitan, baby bok choy, and sesame-ginger soy sauce were yummy.
For my second visit, I got the seitan piccata, with creamed spinach, grilled potato cake, oyster mushrooms, and lemon-caper sauce. It more impressively flavored than my first meal, and left me full and satisfied, without being weighed down. My friend felt the same about the summer vegetable and wild mushroom fricassee, with soft polenta and truffled almond cheese. But again, the cocktails really stood out for being subtly fruity, seasonal and light.
Overall, Candle 79 is a pleasant place to get a light healthy meal with a friend or family member, especially if she is complaining you never come to her on the Upper East Side. It might not be worth a special visit trip up to 80th Street, but if you're up there, it's a solid choice to cap your afternoon or evening.