Of all the burgers the Underground Gourmet has gobbled in a career in which the primary job requirement often seems to be an ability to eat more burgers, we’d yet to find one slathered with cashew butter, topped with bacon, and served on a Chinese bao bun with a side of deep-fried pickles. Not that we were looking. But there it was the other night, staring at us menacingly from a fancy square plate at the Toucan and the Lion, a four-month-old self-styled Asian gastropub. Our fears were unfounded. The beef, as it turned out, was fresh and juicy; the bacon and cashew butter winningly juxtaposed the salty with the sweet; and the toasted bao bun had us rethinking our allegiance to the similarly squishy supermarket variety. Even the pickles came through and did their part. In short, here was a burger that may have sounded horribly wrong, but tasted unbelievably right.
That burger is just one of the tasty surprises you might encounter at this jovial little spot whose menu is rife with all sorts of oddly intriguing morsels, such as Scotch eggs (soft-cooked and cloaked in duck sausage), patatas bravas (ingeniously made with purple sweet potatoes instead of standard-issue spuds), and duck-confit mofongo with Chinese sausage that eats like a delicious Chino-Latino take on corned-beef hash. It would be terrific for breakfast, down to the fried egg on top.
The space, discreetly and anomalously situated among the curry shacks and mulligatawny-soup kitchens of the East Village’s Little India restaurant row, is itself a pleasant surprise. French doors open to the street, revealing a convivial barroom to the left, with a communal table and chalkboard menu, and a brighter, whiter dining room to the right—more gastro-garden-patio than gastropub. Of the two rooms, we’re partial to the bar, not least because it happens to be an excellent drinks destination. Beer and wine take a back seat to the house cocktails, which are meticulously conceived and deftly executed, and although they might read too sweet on paper, they arrive nicely balanced. (We can especially endorse the gin-based Eastern Hospitality, a Collins glass fragrant with vanilla and pineapple shrub, and the Sriracha-spiked Lion, a kaffir-lime-and-ginger-infused rum drink served up.)
There’s a tropical inflection to much of the food and drink here, and to chef Justin Fertitta’s credit it avoids coming off as hokey. He divides his menu into shares, mains, and sides, but sends items out willy-nilly, in no particular order. You might find yourself, as we did, starting dinner with a side of curried pickles—crunchy cabbage, long beans, and carrots, mingled with toasted peanuts—a take on Malaysian achar that serves as an appetizing prognosticator of the kitchen’s culinary slant. Fusion tacos are nothing new, but that doesn’t diminish the appeal of the curried beef-short-rib version here, three small corn tortillas per order, strewn with toasted coconut flakes and crumbles of queso fresco. Likewise, a thick, vaguely sweet espresso glaze distinguishes the toothsome pork ribs.
If your appetite is anything like the Underground Gourmet’s, your tiny table will soon be littered with small plates and their saucy remains. We recommend that you save at least a scrap of table and stomach space for that outré burger, or its rival in our main-course affections: the so-called goat potpie, which turns out to be neither pie nor served in a pot, but a soothing massaman curry festooned with two herb-studded roti filling in for the puff pastry. Not every dish is a winner. The roasted chicken breast underpromises and underdelivers, and you might save the farro risotto for your deprived vegetarian friends who are wondering why you dragged them to this meat lover’s Shangri-la.
Here is as good a place as any to mention that the service is smart and friendly, the camera-snapping crowd young and exuberant, and that although the coconut-glazed bacon-sweet-potato doughnuts might have more mouthwatering shock value, our loyalties lie with the ethereal, deconstructed kaffir-lime pie—a dessert served, like some of our favorite things at this offbeat gastropub, in a glass.
The Toucan and the Lion
342 E. 6th St., nr. First Ave.; 212-375-8989
Hours: Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday 6 to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday till midnight.
Prices: $3 to $22.
Ideal Meal: Burger, patatas bravas, kaffir-lime pie.
Note: Nut butter isn’t as exotic a burger topping as it sounds; the peanut-butter burger is something of a midwestern specialty.
Scratchpad: Two stars for the creative cooking, and another for the top-notch cocktails.