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: calliope

One of the (only) downsides of having lived in Paris is that New Yorkers assume I'm an authority on French food in New York. Truth be told, I'm a "when in Rome" kind of eater, and have rarely discovered NYC eateries that resemble the fresh, creative and elegant preparations I grew to love in France. Instead, I typically find fussy, heavy cuisine - a fault I assign not so much to the chefs, but moreso to American diners' expectations of "French" food.

That said, every once in a while - and often when I am least seeking it - I discover a restaurant that so utterly embodies the food of France that it bypasses nostalgia and heads straight to simple pleasure. No restaurant in New York has done this more for me than the recently opened Calliope, in the East Village.

A few weeks before Calliope opened, I saw chef Ginevra Iverson speak at a panel about the Farm Bill, where I was impressed by her no-nonsense views on sustainability in restaurant cooking. I thus came to her restaurant expecting something akin to Northern Spy Food Co (which I also love), but discovered a more subtle approach to seasonal eating. In fact, it resembled the perspective of the Parisian chefs I know: that we should eat seasonably because it tastes better, requiring no further, self-conscious examination of edible ethics.

The food at Calliope was beautiful, from the complimentary anchovy toasts (saltily paired with peppery raw radishes) to the warm, home-baked madeleines we received as a goodbye treat. But no dish was more visually stunning than my favorite, the leek and lobster terrine. Here, the noble leek (which is so often cooked to smithereens) was allowed a bit of al dente. The lobster was a clean complement with its meaty flesh, tarragon added herbal complexity, and a crunchy dose of sea salt sealed the textural deal.

We followed the terrine with the tomato tart, an uniquely red and intensely flavorful use of this omnipresent fruit. Also impressive was the elegant, golden-crusted roast chicken with chanterelles, a dish that harkened back to the true French classics. On the other hand, the less typically French rabbit pappardelle was not a flavor or textural combination I enjoyed, though the rabbit itself was very well cooked and Pete Wells seems to have appreciated it. As for the sides, the chard and sorrel gratin was rich, but less so than expected - a perfect definition of modern French cuisine.

Calliope 84 East Fourth Street (212) 260-8484

eater's digest: indulging in the east village

Since my last post was an uber-healthy recipe for a veggie breakfast smoothie, what better to follow with than an ode to indulgent junk food?

For those of you who follow me on Twitter, you know I'm really excited about my summer discovery of the nerdy, hilarious food lecture series, Masters of Social Gastronomy (MSG). The first of their talks I attended was on gelatin, which inspired me to go home and make a beautiful jello mold. (Beautiful, that is, until I flipped it upside down, and the half-firm cream layer reminded me that sometimes I should follow a recipe instead of my typical DIY cooking-on-the-fly. The good news is - it was still absolutely delicious!)

I returned to MSG this month for a lecture on ice cream, (which was packed! with delicious samples!) which of course led me to crave the 'cream, hard. So my friends and I devised an ingenious plot to hit up one of the most happening froyo spots in the city - Big Gay Ice Cream.

Of course, it's not really healthy to have ice cream for dinner, is it? (Say no.) Right, agreed. So what just happened to be around the corner from Big Gay? Crif Dogs - the infamous East Village purveyor of hot, salty meat on a bun.

Now, both of these stops on the oh-so-delicious-and-bad-for-you tour were first-time eats for me, making them all the more delightful. In anticipation of an ambitious dessert, I opted for a simple Crif Dog with sauerkraut and mustard - which was, frankly (pun intended), an amazing choice because you could really taste the meat. The Crif Classic, a smoked beef and pork dog, is an ingenious combo of all the things you love about both high- and low-end 'dogs. The meat doesn't taste like "mystery" - it tastes like a smoky, salty, sweating-with-flavor delight on a bun. (Except the bun was much too dry/bland for me. Probably holds up well to the wetter/wilder Crif combos, however).

So after enjoying the tried-and-true NYC meal of hotdogs on a sidewalk, we headed to Big Gay to join the line of eager patrons.

Something I have to give Big Gay major props on,  from the start, is the people in their line seem excited - not miffed, not cynical, but genuinely eager to be in line. I might attribute this to the unicorns and fairy dust that seem to emanate from the place. It really is special, from tip to toe. Also, newbies get a sidewalk menu consultation with a staff member (which is really reassuring and helpful, because when you get inside you will be overwhelmed). I, of course, asked many probing questions about the must-have cones and alternative combinations, and recommend everyone else take full advantage of the very happy staff's expertise at that point.

...Because once you get inside, you need to order - fast. Salty pimp is a classic, you absolutely cannot go wrong with salt, caramel injected soft serve, and chocolate dip. But I was craving the smashed pretzels of the chocolate globs cone (also salty and dipped in chocolate) and I wanted some caramel - so after a bit of back-and-forth, the hilarious man at the counter told me exactly what I needed to have. Chocolate globs, twist soft serve, bourbon caramel. A cone so ripe with all-that-is-right-in-the-world (see: toppings) that it literally needs to be laid down in a little plastic cradle so you can attack it without it exploding into delicious bits.

And you know what? I did not feel disgusting, over fed, or bad about myself after that double-duty indulgence in the East Village. I felt victorious. (Even though now, writing about it, I kind of feel like I'm on speed. Which is actually how my sugared-up friend Gillian sounded when expressing her excitement about Big Gay on the walk home.)

The moral of the story is:

1) Don't go to food lectures hungry, unless you want to be "inspired". 2) Big Gay Ice Cream shop is amazing. Literally magical. And has a higher buttermilk content than most soft serve around. 3) You could do far worse than a plain 'ol juicy dog chez Crif. 4) If for some reason you do get a junk food hangover, I've still got your back in the morning.