At her Lower East Side restaurant Pig & Khao, the chef and former Top Chef contestant Leah Cohen cooks, mostly, within the boundaries of Southeast Asia. She pulls influences from the Philippines, where her mother was born and raised, and Thailand, in dishes like a sizzling sisig with pork head and crispy som tum. But, after seven years, she wanted to stretch her legs and explore ideas she felt she couldn’t at that restaurant. “There are dishes where I get to be a little more playful,” Cohen says. “Other dishes I just really wanted people to be able to try that I haven’t been able to put on the menu at Pig & Khao.”
Cohen’s found a home for them at Piggyback NYC*, the new Chelsea restaurant she and her husband, Ben Byruch, open on Tuesday. One of those is the wonton mee, or noodles, pork and shrimp wontons, and char siu pork belly, which she calls “another dish I love that we can’t go do at Pig & Khao” because it doesn’t quite fit in. She points to the Malaysian curry puffs as another — because of the more labor-intensive prep — and the cha ca la vong, the Vietnamese classic turmeric-and-lemongrass seasoned fish with rice noodles, peanuts, herbs, and nuoc cham.
Some of the dishes are straight up versions of standards, like the pork and beef lumpia, while with others, Cohen takes more liberties big and small. Take the okie toast, a play on the cabbage pancake okonomiyaki; the Hainanese half-duck; a riff on Hainan chicken with duck-fat rice cakes; or the medai crudo, based on a shrimp salad Cohen learned in Chiang Mai. “Instead of making it be a salad and the green mango the star, the crudo is the star and the green mango is a little garnish,” she says.
Given its location, only a few blocks from Madison Square Garden, Piggyback has an appropriate amount of bar food for long-suffering Knicks fans who need to drown their sorrows in honey-butter-gochujang sauce. (It comes with the wings.) You can also get Thai fried rice, if you had too many beers at the game, or salt-and-pepper shrimp with Kewpie lime mayo. If you’re in for a full meal, larger dishes include the lamb rendang with roti, and a white-pepper lobster with butter sauce. Eventually, the restaurant will open for brunch as well as lunch.
For the drinks, Cohen and Byruch looked to beverage director Ben Schmitt, who was the general manager of the original Piggyback. His cocktails are heavy on ingredients Cohen uses: gochujang syrup in the tequila-based Bars for Days, pandan in the rye drink called Mercenary’s Revenge, and banana leaf in the Filipino rum-based Café Banana. For the bourbon and Scotch cocktail called Wing Sauce, he’s infusing Velvet Falernum with a soy brown butter.
The restaurant was designed by Byruch, who wanted to give the space a ’70s feel and create three distinct sections. “The front is a nod to the neon street in every city in Asia,” he says of the area near the entrance, where there’s a wall by the artist @suchs_life with signs from those streets in cities from Hong Kong to Saigon. The second is decorated with posters of classic American movies, ranging from Ghostbusters to The Deer Hunter, over wheatpaste made from Asian-American newspapers. “I sent everyone to get newspapers. I sent my parents, who live in Philadelphia, to a Vietnamese neighborhood,” Byruch says. Another wall in that room is decorated with vintage ads from the Philippines and Thailand. “A lot of these are crossover ads for brands or products that are also U.S. products, like Cheez Whiz, condensed milk,” Byruch says.
The attention to detail carries over to the bathrooms, too, each of which is different. One is covered in stamps from envelopes purchased at flea markets in Asia. Byruch scoured the Northeast, too, for objects to decorate the space with. There’s an old cigarette machine from which they’ll sell merch, and the back room is decorated with a bunch of old speakers, some of which were also used for a DJ booth. For now, it’ll be used for overflow and private events. “The idea for that is ’60s, ’70s New York kind of meets your friend’s grandma’s basement,” Byruch says. “We just kind of wanted to do something fun that has a fun feel.”
Piggyback NYC, 140 W. 30th St., nr. Seventh Ave.; 212-239-0570
* This post has been updated to correctly identify Leah Cohen’s new restaurant as Piggyback NYC and not Piggyback Bar, the name of her now closed Jersey City spot.