Top Chef's Leah Cohen Brings Pinoy Comfort to Clinton Street

A house party with pig's head

Cities are layers, and the amateur archaeologist might look into New York's past at the Lower East Side restaurant Pig and Khao. A blue insignia lodged in the tile like a fossilized bone indicates this place was once the jewel in Iacopo Falai's culinary empire. For a while, it was also an outpost of the S. Klein department chain, and before that a shoe store, founded by two young Polish brothers at the turn of the 19th century.

Today, it's the newest restaurant from the Fatty Crew group, and a young chef named Leah Cohen runs the kitchen. Falai's hanging crystals have been ditched in favor of harsh, shadow-making lights. Italian food has been conquered by a Filipino-Thai hybrid, inspired by Cohen's own Filipina mother, as well as her recent stint cooking in Asia.

Cohen first received attention for her performance on Bravo's cooking show Top Chef, but I won't dwell on that because I'm not a TV critic. (If I were, I'd devote this space to Bob's Burgers, a wonderful dramatic series about a miserable small-town chef, his delusional wife, and their three children.) Cohen and her team work the open kitchen in T-shirts, their straw fedoras tilted at jaunty angles. They tease one another and laugh loudly as they scuff pans over the flames, sometimes chatting with diners seated at the marble bar.

The waitstaff is having some fun, as well, even if they don't always seem to know what they're doing. A cilantro hater put in a gentle request to avoid the garnish, but the message was clearly never delivered to the kitchen. The herb arrived on every plate, with no acknowledgement of the mistake. On another visit, the waitress spent the evening repeating to each one of her tables that halo-halo, the Filipino dessert on the menu, came from the Vietnamese word "to mix." After giving it a hard sell and convincing us to order it, she leaned in to ask me which adjective would best describe the texture, because she'd never tasted it herself.

It's such a shame Pig and Khao's service is clumsy because Cohen can cook. The sizzling sisig ($13) is a fine, kinky show of fat on fat. The wobbly meat of the pig's head, braised and roasted, tossed at the table with a raw egg, lime, and cilantro. Mix it slowly, or the creamy yolk will go too far, too fast. A red curry rice salad ($11) is pleasantly hot and rich with toasted rice. Cohen's rendition of the noodle curry khao soi ($14) is full of quality crunch and chew, though the broth can lean on its sweetness. Dishes like the simple quail adobo ($15) reveal that the chef is capable of a light touch.

Inconsistencies can be maddening, though, especially when it comes to something delicious—like the lovely mantao buns, fried until properly golden. Soft, sweet, and shockingly white inside. They accompany a dish of mussels and tiny cubes of Chinese sausage, dosed with yuzu, dashi, and sweet Thai basil. The dish was, on one occasion, pleasant. But visit on a rough night, and your suspicion that these ingredients absolutely don't belong together will be confirmed, as they fight to the death. Crispy pork leg ($26), cooked for too long, has the look and feel of mummified human flesh.

The dining room gets miserable as the evening goes on. Falai told The New York Times that he was leaving the space because the neighborhood had changed, become less fashionable. It's true that there are a lot of identically dressed people with identical haircuts, all crowding around your table as they wait for their own, letting in blasts of cold air as they pop outside for a smoke. This is the Lower East Side right now, and the line for the only bathroom will extend past the bar like a house party. If you are old, you will feel it.

Pig and Khao's food can get boisterous as well. Go when you can handle the crush of your fellow humans and the deeply fishy stink of salmon chips ($4) made from skin procured at Russ and Daughters. Food has the power to obliterate everything else, just like a bottle of whiskey. And sometimes, that is just the thing.

trao@villagevoice.com

 
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