Take This Fusion and Shove It
There are certain restaurants that absolutely mystify me. They get attention they don't deserve for dishes that should never have been made. They get called out for distinction in a way that makes you believe that the worst thing that ever happened to food is the democratization of restaurant reviewing. So it is with The Toucan and The Lion in New York City's East Village, which served one of the most horrendous meals I can remember having recently.
We spent $100 at The Toucan and The Lion, and truly, we may as well have thrown that money in the toilet — we might have felt better doing that than having to actually eat the food. And if we had done so, at least then we'd have been in the right place to purge. If you go out to restaurants with any frequency, and do so as part of your job, you have a fair share of mediocre, sometimes even horrible meals. There are fantastic restaurants in New York CIty, but there are also enough mediocre ones that it's often not worth letting your blood boil to take the offending places to task. That's not the case at The Toucan and The Lion. Someone should pay, and not the customers.
Headed by chef Justin Fertitta, formerly of Jane, and billed as an Asian gastropub, The Toucan and The Lion on East Sixth Street by First Avenue represents what's bad about "fusion" and the present Asian craze. There's something very colonial about what's going on with New York City's fascination with Asian cuisine, almost a quasi-culinary Orientalism. If it's Asian, it's often popular, and while that may mean there's buzz, it doesn't always mean it's actually any good.
The door is unassuming, and the décor is flimsy, with tables and chairs that look like they've been repurposed from the failed East Village space-age fusion bomb Kurve. I walked out of the restaurant the first time I entered. It was a sweltering summer day and there was no air-conditioning. We could barely focus on the words on the menu it was so stuffy, and it took forever for a server to swing by. For the latter reason we almost walked out the second time. I wish we had.
There are Scotch eggs and beef short rib tacos on the menu, indication enough for any savvy restaurant-goer that this is a place to be avoided. Still, you've heard things about the burger, so you press beyond the overhyped, cloyingly sweet, ricidulously pedestrian cocktails that only arrive after appetizers. The Crimson & Clover, made with tequila, lime, fresh muddled raspberries, green peppercorn, and simple syrup, tastes like a Sour Patch cocktail made by a 12th-grader armed with knowledge of salt-rimmed margaritas and access to the spice cabinet. The Lion in Summer fares better, less sweet, but its advertised Sriracha component is barely noticeable.
Espresso-glazed pork ribs are dry, but endurable if you use them to mop up the sweet sauce coating the pate. But the blood orange and green mango salad looks like something a first-week culinary school student would make to try to impress parents. Radish, chile, Thai basil, and julienned mango is billed as served with baby carrots. It's doubtful those are baby carrots, regardless, they're cut on the axis and look incongruous in a bowl of julienned ingredients. The whole thing is sweet, slimy, and tastes like it's been sitting in a quart container since 11 a.m.
Things get worse.
Wok-seared calamari with basil, sake, picholine olives, pistachio, and spiced coconut breadcrumbs sounds halfway decent. It arrives completely without any indication of heat and covered with a powdered mess. You doubt the cooks even know what a wok is. Either way, tonight's "calamari" tastes like last Tuesday's fishy squid. Two bites is enough to know that another one could make you ill.
Let's face it, though, the reason you've visited is the promise of an amazing East Village burger, one served on toasted bao buns slathered with cashew nut butter and a sophmoric, Jenga-stacked side of four fried Whiskey sour pickles with kaffir lime aioli (the best thing you're likely to eat at The T+L). Sounds like a bad idea, right? It is. Flaking bao, super sweet thick cashew butter, limp and soggy applewood-smoked bacon — you watch your dining companion take a bite, see their face, and you ask, "It can't be inedible, can it?"
You take a bite and are immediately filled with three things: sadness, bile, and the need to seek revenge. Don't try to do that on Yelp, where there's a rating of four out of five stars through 79 reviews. You walk out wondering how, why, and who, angry at the girl talking with her friends at the table by the door using "like" as a preposition, and thankful that there's a place like this for those people to eat.
Arthur Bovino is The Daily Meal's executive editor. Follow him on Twitter.