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amidst the brick high rises and blue scrubs of weill cornell's residency students lives candle café, a beacon of light for the upper east side's vegan community. back in 1984, it was started as just a small juice bar, vitamin and sandwich shop, but with a $53,000 stroke of luck-the amount that owners bart potenza and joy pierson won in a 1993 drawing of the take five lotto-their small veggie outpost was transformed into a vegan paradise with waitstaff.

now that wholesome endeavor, which, according to their mantra, is "dedicated to bettering the health of the individual and the planet," includes a second, fancier location, candle 79, (the café is more a wooden chair-type place), a full scale catering operation and a best-selling cookbook. according to manager mark doskow, who also heads business development for this burgeoning meatless empire, it's just the tip of the iceberg.

"we're looking to build the candle concept further, with a retail food line and another restaurant," he said.

they've even begun to send chefs into new york city school cafeterias as part of the wellness in the schools program. but on to the food.

having surrounded myself with a fair number of sandal-wearing shunners of flesh back in college, the terms tempeh, tofu and soy are hardly new to me, despite my own fondness for a juicy burger. but what struck me about candle café was the diversity of flavors on the menu. influenced by the backgrounds of a moroccan bartender, a latin american chef and all the international flavors of new york, diners will be anything but bored with the eating options here.

though the whole wheat quesadillas ($10) smelled like the burnt tortillas i've been known to "cook" over my gas burner, the filling of bean puree, grilled vegetables and soy cheese was satisfying enough. much better was the impressively creamy $3 side of guacamole, prepared, of course, without a hint of real dairy. and the faux creaminess hardly stopped there. reluctantly opting away from a curried indian plate (potato cauliflower curry, yellow split pea dal, yellow basmati rice, date raisin chutney and cabbage salad, $16), i instead dug in to a heaping mound of fungal risotto ($16). nary a mushroom was missed in the mix, with trumpet royal, yellow oyster, maitake, crimini and porcini mingled with plump peas and distinguished by a richness usually reserved for buttered cooking.

perhaps the most artistic dish i encountered was my calorie-counting sister's aztec salad ($15), a mesoamerican pyramid of barbequed tempeh, bi-color quinoa, black beans, spiced pumpkin seeds and mixed greens buried under it all. surprisingly, it wasn't dry even without the toasted cumin vinaigrette. my cousin melissa, one of those health-conscious residency students, took a similar path with her thai grilled seitan salad ($16), a weird but appealing confluence of "wheat meat" (the seitan), curried grilled pineapple, spicy kimchee and toasted almond slivers.

had we visited during another time of year, the menu would have reflected the seasonal climate: 250 miles is the radial guide for sourcing produce, but california farms do play their part when the wool hats come out. happily, the alcohol list doesn't seem to be affected by the mercury measuring. organic wines and beers abound, but expect to pay more than you want ($10 average on grapes, $9 average on hops). skipping the suds will be the ever-expanding celiac population, but there is a special gluten-free menu, with waiters carefully trained on the ingredients to accommodate all kinds of dietary needs.

before you leave, be sure to sample one of the famously inventive desserts, like the sumptuous rice pudding ($6). in all, this progressive wax monument of an establishment was a more than satisfying change of pace for an omnivore like me.


candle café

1307 third ave., betw. 74th and 75th streets


entrees: $15 to $20

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