Restaurant review: Tiger + Lily

G.A. Benton
Signature Ramen and Tso Good Wings

“Tiger lily” can refer to several things: a beautiful flowering plant, a character from Peter Pan or a dreamy tune by that hyper-literate '90s band Luna. Separate the two words by a plus sign, though, and you get something new.

That would be Tiger + Lily, a trendy Downtown restaurant whose diverse sensibilities reflect a name that combines a ferocious predator with a delicate blossom.

At Tiger + Lily, you'll find a broth-less style of ramen hybridized with a famously spicy Chinese noodle dish reimagined with tahini and ground turkey. It's called — deep breath — Szechuan Dandan Mazeman with turkey ($12), and like most items I tried in this upbeat eatery, it's an Asian-fusion creation that works.

Open about five months in the modest-sized, former ZenCha Tea Salon space, Tiger + Lily advertises “freestyle” ramen and a “modern take on Asian rice bowls.” That kind of lingo will annoy purists. (But what wouldn't?)

As a gaze at the many-windowed place with red columns, a bas-relief Buddha head, decorative blue bottles and waving cat figurines quickly conveys, though, tradition can be a stepping-off point for amusement rather than reverence. And, if you're not the harried lone server here on a moderately busy night, Tiger + Lily can deliver on its implied promise of providing a good time with its playful setting and nouveau Asian menu.

Here, bao — Chinese steamed buns — arrive deep fried to golden-brown and bearing flavorful, if skimpy, fillings such as Korean-inspired beef with grilled pineapple and kimchi, or five-spiced chicken with salsa and chow mein noodles. These are fun to nibble on but, at $4 apiece, and tinier than a slider, they're overpriced in my book.

The Tso Good Wings ($8 for six) are a relative bargain. They're crisp and enjoyable enough that I don't even care that their flavor owes more to soy and vinegar than the sweet-and-spicy Chinese-American chicken dish that supplies their name.

Rice and salad bowls, those indispensable modern restaurant tropes, are available with a choice of four proteins. If hardly transcendent, Tiger + Lily's versions are fairly attractive and healthful-leaning.

Served with a side sauce — the creamy, citrusy, tangy-sweet “yum yum“ was my favorite — these are greens with or without warm rice (brown rice is offered at a $1 upcharge) all lightly dressed in a simple vinaigrette. Standard accessories include little piles of pickled red cabbage, plus vinegar-spiked shredded carrots and cucumber wheels. The two protein options I sampled were pleasant: sweet, earthy kalbi beef clumps; and gently pan-crisped, soft tofu slabs enlivened with kimchi, sesame seeds and teriyaki sauce.

The Tiger's Signature Ramen ($14) is worth signing on for. It's a mysteriously dark, poultry-celebrating soup that features a rich-and-meaty chicken broth with earthy undertones and smoky notes from what tastes like toasted sesame oil. This supports springy rice noodles garnished with corn, enoki mushrooms, spicy ground turkey, “caramelized chicken chashu” (read: sliced chicken breast), half a hard-cooked egg, scallions and more.

The only thing I liked here better than that soup was the aforementioned Szechuan Danadan Mazeman Ramen, which has considerably more spicy turkey than the Tiger's Signature Ramen. It also has thick wavy noodles, a fried egg, nori strips and enough chili oil and Sichuan peppercorns to warrant a good cooling-off partner such as a 22-ounce Sapporo beer ($7).

For a sweeter extinguisher to any facial flames, try one of the house-made desserts. Apparently inspired by the French mille-feuille, the Mille Crepe Cake ($7) is a 15-layer tower of house crepes spackled together with an airy custard. When I tried it, the flavor du jour was passionfruit. Creamy but light, bright and tangy, French and Asian, I'd say the cake tasted like, well, Tiger + Lily.

Tiger + Lily Bistro

19 E. Gay St., Downtown