Tribeca Canvas, which has been up and running for several weeks in an oft-renovated, brick-lined space down on Church Street, is not the kind of restaurant we’re used to seeing from the glamorous Iron Chef and sushi master Masaharu Morimoto. There’s no elaborate, wood-carved omakase room on the premises. Cocktails are served at a small bar in the front of the house instead of in a giant, disco-size lounge. The spangled, boom-era ornamentation favored by Morimoto’s longtime business partner Stephen Starr (who’s not a partner here) has been replaced by a slightly foreboding, bare-bones décor (gray wooden tabletops; dim, guttering candles; strips of canvas painted with what appear to be dark, scraggly trees). Instead of the usual lavish sushi delicacies, the menu features hamachi tacos, tuna tostadas, and even Iron Chef-style interpretations of ancient comfort-food totems like fish and chips, and mac and cheese.
“I need my camper’s headlamp to see this food,” said one of my tasters as we peered through the gloom at a strange, ultimately failed version of the plum-size Japanese street food takoyaki, which Morimoto stuffs here with escargot instead of bits of octopus. Next to the snail balls were a pair of overbattered corn dogs the size of small porcupines, and next to the corn dogs were gummy Korean ddukbokki rice cakes glazed in a slick of spicy soy. The hamachi tacos were nicely constructed with fresh yellowtail tartare tastefully piled in small gyoza skins with guacamole, jalapeño, and fresh cilantro, but the fusion appetizer we liked best was the inevitable David Chang steamed-bun knockoff, which Morimoto’s chefs fill with a braised-lamb ragù, instead of pork, and soften with yogurt raita and a tangy chopping of pickled daikon.
Several of the other fusion creations on the menu have similar crowd-pleasing qualities, especially the fish and chips (with coleslaw, pickles, and an accompanying stack of sliced, deep-fried sweet potatoes), and the delicious, umami-rich mac and cheese, which is made with four kinds of cheese and topped with a wobbly poached egg. Dumpling snobs may quibble with the pork-and-shrimp gyoza, which were gummy around their unconventional, hat-shaped edges, and the sweet ginger soy sauce on that old Japanese comfort-food favorite, pork-belly yakiniku, was overwhelmed with too much soy. But the spicy tofu sauce on my Thai-style fish entrée (a whole fried Catskill trout) was tasty enough, and after quizzically inspecting the dish with their iPhone flashlight apps for a minute or two, my guests seemed to enjoy the house pork ribs, which Morimoto plates, eccentrically, with fennel slaw and a wad of risotto.
As any devoted Changophile (or Torrisi addict) will tell you, however, the trendy, nouveau comfort-food restaurants of today tend to work best when a chef has a focused, visceral (read “childhood”) connection to the cuisine they’re working in. At this helter-skelter Morimoto production, this key ingredient is clearly missing. Like many of the mash-up savory recipes, the desserts—a French tart made with persimmons instead of apples, tiramisu sliders touched with Kahlúa, a soft, sweet square of Thai rice pudding with a brûléed top—taste like something you’d encounter on a manic TV cooking competition instead of at a first-rate New York restaurant kitchen. And the sense you get, as one dish is cleared away and another arrives, is that, instead of cooking from the heart, this talented chef is coming up with his slightly tortured, transparently trendy recipes by putting on a blindfold and randomly throwing darts at a map.
Former Top Chef contestant Leah Cohen’s newish pork-themed restaurant, Pig and Khao, is an Asian Hipster destination of a much more familiar kind. The narrow little storefront room on Clinton Street has been fitted in the now-time-honored no-reservations style with communal tables, a small open kitchen, and a variety of evocative tchotchkes (Thai urns, a carved-wood dragon), presumably gathered by the cooks during the course of their de rigueur food tours of Manila, Hong Kong, and Chiang Mai. Cohen has sprinkled her modestly priced, user-friendly menu with a variety of Chang-style pork dishes (curry rice salad with minced pork, grilled pork jowls, crispy “pata” pork leg), and during the warm months of the year, you’ll be able to enjoy your pork dinner outside with bottles of Asian beer (Asahi from Japan, San Miguel from the Philippines) in a little garden space strung with lights.
Pig and Khao doesn’t have the professional polish of Dale Talde’s eponymous Asian Hipster establishment in Park Slope, or the focused intensity of Andy Ricker’s nouveau Thai joint, Pok Pok Ny, on the Brooklyn waterfront. But you won’t have to wait hours for a taste of Filipino pork head (the excellently named “sizzling sisig”) at this unassuming little restaurant, and unlike Morimoto, Cohen is in the kitchen almost every night and clearly has a passion for the food she’s cooking. I liked the sausage-laced mussels, served with knuckle-size fried mantao buns, and the crispy rice salad, which is folded with ground pork and plenty of spicy red curry. The Thai-style whole fried fish is the entrée to get if you overdose, like I did, on the early pork dishes, and if you wish to experience the messy, crackpot exuberance of a real Asian dessert, call for the halo-halo, which is constructed, just like on the streets of Manila, with leche flan, buckets of shaved ice, and colorful scoops of yam-flavored ice cream.
313 Church St., nr. Lispenard St.; 917-720-2845
Hours: Dinner Sunday through Thursday 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday to midnight.
Prices: Appetizers, $6 to $18; entrées, $22 to $28.
Ideal Meal: Hamachi tacos, lamb buns, fish and chips or mac and cheese, crispy fish, rice pudding.
Note: If you feel like reliving the boom years, the limited wine list includes a bottle of 2003 Dom Pérignon Blanc de Blanc for $410.
Scratchpad: One star for the helter-skelter, occasionally satisfying cooking, zero stars for the ambience.
Pig and Khao
68 Clinton St., nr. Stanton St.; 212-920-4485
Hours: Dinner Sunday through Wednesday 5 to 10 p.m. Thursday through Saturday till midnight.
Prices: Appetizers, $9 to $16; entrées, $24 to $28.
Ideal Meal: Crispy red-curry rice salad, mussels, whole fried fish, halo-halo.
Note: The strangely pleasing house sangria is flavored with papaya and green
mango, among other odd things.
Scratchpad: This isn’t a destination restaurant, but the faithful and straightforward food, and the absence of the usual Asian Hipster hype, are worth a star.
*This article originally appeared in the January 28, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.