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NYTimes: NYC's Candle Cafe owners featured in their new restaurant, Candle 79

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  • Pamela Rice
    Pix of owner Bart Potenza at: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/08/06/dining/06DEAD.html?tntemail0 (registration required) August 6, 2003 Feng Shui and Vegan Fare
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 6, 2003
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      Pix of owner Bart Potenza at:
      http://www.nytimes.com/2003/08/06/dining/06DEAD.html?tntemail0
      (registration required)

      August 6, 2003

      Feng Shui and Vegan Fare Battle a Neighborhood Curse

      By ALEX WITCHEL

      IF you noticed them at all, you would think they were part of the
      restaurant's new design: two small octagons outside, each with a
      mirror at its center. The point? To protect the restaurant from the
      building across the street, whose sharp edges, according to Judith
      Wendell, a feng shui consultant, "create a knifelike effect on the
      restaurant's energy, cutting into it - so we're reflecting it back."

      Yes, it's come to this. Opening a restaurant in New York has always
      required a certain combination of savvy and insanity, especially at
      problematic addresses. Everyone can think of a space that has had a
      run of bad luck, no matter how many menus were tried. So when Joy
      Pierson and Bart Potenza, the owners of Candle Cafe, a successful
      vegan restaurant at 1307 Third Avenue at 75th Street, decided to
      expand into the property recently vacated by the failed Dining Room,
      they took its karma into their own hands. They hired Ms. Wendell to
      go where no contractor had gone before and fix what seemed to be
      ailing the two-story town house at 154 East 79th Street at Lexington
      Avenue.

      Candle 79, as it is called, is the building's fifth tenant in 20
      years; others were Trois Jean, the Living Room and Jams, which
      started out white hot with Jonathan Waxman at the stove, was shaken
      by the stock market crash of 1987 and finally closed in 1988 after
      being renamed Jonathan Waxman and lowering its prices. So rather than
      rely on the purity and healing powers of the food alone to conquer
      unseen demons (vegans omit not only meat and poultry but all animal
      products, including fish, eggs, dairy, even honey) Ms. Pierson and
      Mr. Potenza have taken out supernatural insurance instead. Although
      they will devote this month to private parties and not open full time
      until September, they claim to feel the benefits already.

      "We used feng shui in the Third Avenue location," Mr. Potenza said,
      "and after being in business there for nine years and going strong,
      we think it's an element that has added to its overall success."

      The front door to Candle 79 was built on a diagonal, which means it
      is slanted in Ms. Wendell's parlance, and she says that is no
      laughing matter.

      "Slanted energy can cause accidents, bad business and lawsuits, and
      we want to cut that off immediately," she said. She hung a bamboo
      flute above it on the inside. "Usually you hang a sword, but it
      didn't match the d├ęcor," she said. "The flute symbolizes the sword."

      An identical bamboo flute hangs over the doorway to one of the
      bathrooms near the kitchen; according to a feng shui map that Ms.
      Wendell consulted, that particular bathroom is located in a zone
      symbolizing wealth. "Because there is a toilet and sink there, you
      don't want the wealth going down the drain," she explained. (When Mr.
      Potenza added a mirror to a bathroom at his first restaurant, the
      Healthy Candle, to counteract a similar problem, he said he received
      a tax rebate of $1,700 the next day.)

      At the 79th Street space, Ms. Wendell said, she will also perform a
      number of "blessing and clearing" ceremonies that will "cleanse the
      negative energy and augment the positive," including one that will
      have Ms. Pierson and Mr. Potenza mix a concoction of cinnabar (a
      component of mercury known, Ms. Wendell said, for its protective
      qualities) with alcohol (Ms. Wendell prefers Bacardi 151 proof).

      "They will then literally anoint the space," she said, "sealing the
      doors, putting it down drains and toilets and touching the center
      part of each burner on the stove."

      In still another ceremony, she will use rice to "feed the negative
      spirits so they are sated and no longer need to occupy the space,"
      Ms. Wendell said. "One of the things that prevented me from coming in
      at first was the yin, or what I call predecessor chi." (Chi is the
      Chinese word for energy.)

      Which means the place had ghosts. "And they could be here from long
      before there was even a 79th Street," she said.

      Well, depending on what they like to eat, they might be getting out
      just in time. Clarkson Potter has recently published "The Candle Cafe
      Cookbook: More than 150 Enlightened Recipes From New York's Renowned
      Vegan Restaurant," by Ms. Pierson and Mr. Potenza with Barbara
      Scott-Goodman, featuring ingredients like Tofutti cream cheese, soy
      margarine and seitan (pronounced say-tan), which is wheat gluten.
      Whether or not that food appeals to ghosts, there are plenty of
      people who are fans of the restaurant and its signature dishes, like
      ginger-miso stir-fry and paradise casserole (sweet potatoes, black
      beans and millet), including Brooke Shields, Woody Harrelson, Alicia
      Silverstone, Michael J. Fox, Tracey Pollan and Eric Schlosser, author
      of "Fast Food Nation."

      There is also enough noncelebrity customer demand for Ms. Pierson and
      Mr. Potenza to keep open the original Third Avenue location, with its
      cafe feel, so its devoted regulars can choose between it and the new
      space for a more upscale ambience. Candle Cafe 79 seats 85, double
      the capacity of the original, and, like it, will serve organic wine
      and beer.

      "There is still a hippie perception about this kind of food," Mr.
      Potenza noted, a copy of Vegetarian Journal tucked under his arm, as
      he and Ms. Pierson bade Ms. Wendell farewell and walked to Candle
      Cafe for lunch.

      Ms. Pierson agreed. "A lot of the vegetarian ambience is not fun,"
      she said. "Some of it can be spiritual, but a lot of it just feels
      morose. The attitude around the food is so negative, that it's about
      deprivation, but it's really the opposite. These flavors should be
      eaten with fine wine and good crystal and appreciated as its own
      cuisine. You don't even necessarily have to eat it every day, but
      culinarily it's vibrant. How can you not like fresh fruit from the
      farm?"

      Mr. Potenza nodded vigorously. "That's a beautiful point," he said as
      Ms. Pierson smiled. The couple have been together since 1987, when
      Mr. Potenza made her an avocado and hummus sandwich and, as he likes
      to say, "her life was never the same."

      Mr. Potenza, now 66, bought Sunny's, a popular heath food store and
      juice bar on Lexington Avenue at 71st Street in 1984 from two women
      who were in the habit of lighting candles all over the store each
      night to bless their establishment, so Mr. Potenza renamed the place
      the Healthy Candle. Ms. Pierson, now 41, was working as a
      nutritionist then and became a customer there. She became the
      restaurant's in-house nutritionist, then Mr. Potenza's in-house
      nutritionist.

      They wanted to open a new restaurant - less juice bar, more dining
      room - and on Friday the 13th in August of 1993 played a combination
      of their birthdays in the New York State Take Five game and won
      $53,000. Raising the rest of the money they needed from family,
      friends and customers, they opened Candle Cafe in 1994. (The
      restaurant does use candles, but only soy-based, never beeswax,
      petroleum or lead-wicked.)

      On a recent weekday, the restaurant was packed. A family with three
      generations sat at a large table up front.

      "We've been feeding them for 15 years," Ms. Pierson said proudly,
      adding that the place is popular with pregnant women and new mothers,
      and indeed there were babies at many of the tables. It looked more
      like the Upper West Side than the Upper East Side, though Mr. Potenza
      said that the neighborhood had been supportive of his food from the
      start.

      "Ladies in limousines eat rice and beans," he said. "That's not
      exactly Stephen Sondheim, but it's true."

      Certainly, vegan cuisine has been getting a glossier profile of late.
      The techno rock star Moby opened Teany, a vegan tearoom on
      Manhattan's Lower East Side last year, and Roxanne Klein, the chef
      acclaimed for raw vegan cuisine at her restaurant, Roxanne, in
      Larkspur, Calif., has joined with Charlie Trotter to write "Raw," a
      cookbook that is to be published in November by Ten Speed Press.

      "The whole raw movement is getting chic," Ms. Pierson said. "Demi
      Moore is eating raw now."

      Mr. Potenza nodded. "Trend is our friend," he said. "Look at all the
      Whole Foods stores opening. And we use the same farmers as Union
      Square Cafe and all those kinds of restaurants." Candle Cafe gets its
      organic breads from Amy's Bread.

      "This is good stuff," Ms. Pierson said staunchly. "People think
      they're not going to like it, but that's just a preconceived notion."

      As they spoke, customers stopped by their table to embrace them; one
      couple, a London-based art dealer and his wife, made a reservation
      for that night, having just finished lunch. A waiter brought over a
      dish for Ms. Pierson and Mr. Potenza to try that the chef, Angel
      Ramos, was perfecting for 79th Street: curry and mustard-seed-crusted
      tofu with black rice and coconut black-eyed-pea masala, served with
      paratha bread and peach chutney. It was delicious.

      "If it were an exotic fish, everyone would just eat it without even
      thinking about it," Ms. Pierson said. "What we're doing here is
      feeding people food that goes straight from farm to table. I feel
      good about that."

      She can only hope the ghosts will, too.

      Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company
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