By Arielle Shipper
The term “Asian fusion” most often evokes images of oversized suburban chow houses serving multi-colored cocktails alongside sushi and dishes of nebulous Szechuan-East Indian-random-tropical-island origin.
Pig & Khao, Top Chef alum Leah Cohen’s latest venture with the Fatty crew, seeks to achieve the opposite vibe. In a city replete with upscale Chinese and Japanese restaurants, Cohen’s carefully orchestrated Filipino-Thai cuisine is a welcome breath of fresh air.
From the beginning, Pig & Khao asks you to throw away expectations of fusion pretension and to focus on the food. The pressed tin ceiling, cozy chef’s bar and Christmas light-adorned back patio seamlessly blend comfortable and chic. One unexpectedly bright green wall invigorates an otherwise dim room, the decorative equivalent of a spring of cilantro atop a bowl of hot curry.
Cohen herself works the tiny open kitchen, expediting orders, wielding saucepans and chatting with curious diners. On the night I was there she wore a shirt that read “pleasure dispenser,” and perched a straw porkpie hat on her head, her attitude as unassuming and nonchalant as the restaurant atmosphere she cultivates.
And the food? It’s brash, it’s bold, and it’s a calculated mix of the exotic and familiar. While Cohen’s menu contains a lot of her namesake ingredients (“khao” means rice in Thai), it’s certainly not your stereotypical “pork fat rules” joint. Rather, it’s evidence of a well-researched concentration on fusing flavors—with an admittedly porky base. In place of bacon and pork belly, she uses pig’s head and pig’s leg: the same animal, yet presented in a subtle, sophisticated and non-ironic fashion.
Asian and tropical influences permeate both the cocktails and food, in combinations that are unexpected but not gratuitous. Sangria is flavored with assam skin and green mango. Salmon skin chips pay homage to local culture, but Cohen pairs them with a side of chili jam to add a playful pan-Asian funk.
Signature dishes are sizzling sisig (pork head, liver, chili & whole egg) and khao soi (red curry, coconut milk, chicken, egg noodles, pickled mustard greens, shallots). The sisig comes on an appropriately sizzling platter, and is all at once meaty and creamy with barely-cooked egg. The dish is a perfect blend of fat, salt and acid—a virtual hangover cure in the making. Apprehensive meat eaters need not fear: the meat is well-chopped and well-cooked, and its familiar flavors belie the nose-to-tail origin of the dish.
Khao soi is a noodle curry for the 21st century. Its flavors are complex, layered with spicy red curry, creamy coconut milk, and a deeply funky undertone reminiscent of fish sauce. Crisp noodles are a welcome textural foil to the fresh egg noodles that retain a satisfying snap, and little jewels of perfectly-cooked chicken wait to be discovered by eagerly-wielded chopsticks.
Desserts are not the focus of Pig & Khao, though you’d be well-advised to follow your sizzling and spicy adventures with halo-halo, a literal “mix-mix” of shaved ice, leche flan, ube (purple yam) ice cream and assorted toppings. It’s slightly exotic, definitely intriguing, and a notch above your typical bowl of French vanilla. Much like the restaurant itself.
Pig & Khao, 68 Clinton Street (Btwn Stanton & Rivington), 212-920-4485
See more at http://www.pigandkhao.com