eater's digest: the toucan and the lion

Photos by Lauren DeFilippo For as long as I can remember, breakfast has been my least favorite meal. I used to eat my mother's leftovers - everything from carrot cake to reheated chili - for breakfast on the weekends. It was a culinary victory over the practical constraints of weekday morning sustenance. So, in theory, I always have appreciated the transitional meal of brunch, which made it socially acceptable for me to eat savory while my friends and family opted for sweet. Unfortunately, many restaurants seem to miss the brunch boat, simply serving both breakfast and lunch options, rather than embracing the creativity of this fusional meal. Among the few restaurants that I feel "do it right", an increasing number are asian-influenced, like the East Village's The Toucan and the Lion.

The first unusual aspect of the Toucan is its comfortable, design-y ambiance. It feels more like eating in your very chic friend's kitchen than a hip new restaurant.

Feet swinging over the cozy carpet (when was the last time a restaurant had carpet?), we perused the menu of reinvented classics. The Lion Stack, a duo of corn pancakes served with sunny side up eggs, bacon and salsa verde had instant savory draw. The golden-brown cakes were perfect - both crumbly and moist - with a mild sweetness that balanced out the dish's bolder flavors.

The Short Rib Benedict was a heavier spin on this already-rich breakfast classic. It lacked the spices and acid of my favorite asian meat dishes, but was still a filling, comforting choice. On the other hand, the seemingly unexciting Huevo Burrito turned out to be outstanding. Spicy and veggie-centric, it did not succumb to the dry or sloppy, wet extremes of other breakfast burritos. Rather, it neatly satisfied from the first bite to the last.

The one must-order dish on the menu, however, was the Taro Hash. Lighter and less greasy than your typical morning potatoes, this cilantro-topped, spiced dish inspired audible raves from multiple tables in the restaurant. (We literally negotiated who would nab the last bite.)

Even if the Toucan isn't the absolute "best" brunch I've tried in New York, it certainly is one I'll return to again. If only because - innovative cuisine aside - it was an unusually hype-free weekend meal. No long lines, no excessive day-drinking - just good food in a cozy, tranquil environment.

The Toucan and the Lion 342 E 6th Street 212.375.8989

eater's digest: the publican

Photos by Lauren DeFilippo It was Easter morning, and early.  After a full weekend of eating at the hippest restaurants in town, the last thing my family needed to pack in before our 11 a.m. flight was a hearty brunch.  And yet, here we were, twenty minutes outside of the Loop, face-to-face with portraits of overstuffed swine, and feeling a bit pot-bellied ourselves.

Yet any sense of gluttonous remorse vanished during this almost-religious brunch experience.  The ambiance might be described as Amish-alternative, appropriate for only the hippest of post-prayer gatherings.  Boxed-in booths hid behind hinged, church pew-style doors, while a central U of sturdy, stylized banquet tables filled the core of the high-ceilinged space.  Tall-backed, numbered, wooden chairs with convenient sub-seat shelves only underscored the quirky-meets-functional vibe, as did the table's condiment-toting lazy susan.

This impressive, yet homey attention to dining-room decor was happily equaled - if not surpassed - in the kitchen.  From finger-lickin’-good pecan sticky buns (I should’ve ordered a batch to-go!) to rich red-wine poached eggs, the portions were perfect and the flavors on-point.  Not to mention that our food was beautifully lit by the soft morning light, streaming through curtains that looked like they were stolen from an elder's country home.  The all-around favorite, however, was the ridiculously addictive french fries with (what I can only assume was home-made) mayonnaise.  Normally a fair-weather fan of potatoes, I found myself stealing more than my share of my sister’s side of fries.

It could’ve been our lovely waitress, the quaint Sunday-best of our neighboring diners, or the sentimental sense that this was our last Chicago meal – but I’ve a feeling that I could’ve eaten that food blind-folded in a basement and still savored every bite.  The Publican is namely perfectly – relaxed and accommodating, with just a touch of posh perfectionism.  And if I were lucky enough to be heading back to Chicago this Easter weekend, it's exactly the place I'd choose for my final, pre-flight bite.

The Publican 837 West Fulton Market Chicago 60607 (312) 733-9555