Tiffin Project

Pidgin – Minding the Gap

by Canucklehead on February 13, 2013

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Lots of restaurants get pre-opening buzz. I remember when Chambar was still putting the final touches on its interiors, eGullet BC was a riot of anticipation and excitement. When Hawksworth finally opened, the city breathed a collective sigh of relief that one of the big guns of local dining was finally returning to the kitchen to work his magic. Pidgin’s buzz has been altogether different – because the excitement I’ve been hearing has been from other chefs – which it makes it all the more intriguing.

Located across the street from Pigeon Park, the room is a stunner. There is no lo-fi pretense here, with its stark whites, sharp blacks and glowing golds – the decor heralds ambition and vision. With a sculptural piece of hanging blades in the foyer, there is an almost Damien Hirst feel to it all.

The food does not disappoint. It is a highly technique driven menu, yet does not feel cheffy or fussy – flavours come to the fore naturally, but in ways and combinations that awaken and delight.

A starter of uni (sea urchin roe), cauliflower mousse, and dashi gelee was simply fantastic. The flavours clearly grounded in Japanese clarity – but with a luscious mouth feel and richness that one associates with French cuisine.

This balance between Asian and French technique is a difficult one, because the goals of the two cuisines can be at odds – with Asian cleanliness and purity that drives towards leanness, while French cuisine’s exerts its marvelous transformative powers, turning the rustic to luxurious richness through careful gentle cooking.

When I lived in Hong Kong, I dined at a Japanese restaurant at Repulse Bay that alternated between Japanese and French courses by the same chef, to showcase his skill at what he considered to two finest schools of cooking in the world. That Pidgin Executive Chef Makato Ono is able to achieve such a synergy in one plate, and make it look effortless, is a testament to his skill.

The tongue and cheek of beef was equally delicious. I inwardly rejoiced when the cheek came in a whole piece. I hate it when beef cheeks or oxtails are shredded and served in a sad pile – it feels like a cheat, and the meat suffers too, the fibers shrink and toughen, with the net effect being a sort of meat chewing tobacco. Pidgin’s beef cheek was at the perfect point of falling apart tenderness, but still retaining its character – the tongue providing bursts of richness, balanced against the garlicky sharp broccoli salsa verde.

Dessert was a gentle play on Eton Mess and Pavlova – light, chewy meringues with dollops of bright yuzu curd.

Again, a lovely balancing act of lightness and richness, with refreshing citrus notes that avoided the metallic tang that many yuzu and lemon desserts fall prey to.

Now, anytime a new business opens in the Downtown Eastside, it attracts a lot of attention. There are those who feel that a restaurant like Pidgin does not belong in the neighbourhood, perhaps because it wears its ambitions so openly on its sleeves. The night I was dining there, a group of protestors stood outside, voicing their dissent. One the restaurant’s owners spent most of the evening out front, keeping tempers on an even keel, so that both protestors and diners could co-exist peaceably.

Personally, I welcome a restaurant like Pidgin to the area. As a small boy, with newly immigrated young parents of limited means, we would frequent the DTES alot. I went to preschool and kindergarten across the street from Oppenheimer Park, so visits to the Army and Navy, Save On Meats, Woodward’s, and Golden Crown (located above what is now Wildebeest), were almost daily. The neighbourhood was lively, a little rough, but had a real mix of all sorts of businesses. I think that anytime a small business owner brings life and vigour to the DTES, it is something to celebrate.

It’s the most tired writing cliché in the world – but I looked up “pidgin” on wikipedia and was somewhat surprised by the definition: “A simplified language that develops as a means of communication between two or more groups that do not have a language in common”. From a culinary point of view, Pidgin certainly is able to connect the worlds of Asian and French cuisines deliciously.

But Pidgin also sparks a larger conversation that is worth engaging in. Changes are coming to the DTES whether people like it or not. There have been some brave pioneers such as Sean Heather and Mark Brand that have lead the way for other restaurateurs and have shown that new businesses can operate in the DTES with sensitivity and genuine concern.

I would challenge diners who travel to the area, to take the chance to really engage in a part of the city that too often misunderstood and ignored. I think Pidgin should be lauded for its culinary achievements, but also its willingness to be part of the ongoing evolution of the DTES.

350 Carrall St, Vancouver

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Canucklehead pays for all of his own food and drinks, and tries to dine anonymously.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Joseph Mallozzi February 13, 2013 at 10:52 pm

Great write-up, Lee. We went last week and marveled over the exact three same dishes. In fact, I was so enamored of the uni and cauliflower mousse starter that I ended up ordering a second one. Next time, the foie!

Canucklehead February 14, 2013 at 8:20 am

Thanks! Who is “Lee”?

Canucklehead February 15, 2013 at 6:23 pm

Further to the protesters noted above – PidGin has this posted on their website:

Social Responsibility

First and foremost PiDGiN is about food and dining experience; we have worked tirelessly to create something that all Vancouverites can be proud to call their own. Our focus on food, bar, service and design will contribute to an already thriving reputation as an international destination for great hospitality and culinary exploits. That said, we are intimately aware of where we call home and all the responsibility that comes with. PiDGiN is by definition a bridging of language and culture and our location is not haphazard; we are opening in the most diverse and interesting part of the city and that’s why we are here.

Over the course of the last 7 months of building PiDGiN we have supported and created a dialogue to integrate ourselves within the community. It has been our mandate since inception to introduce programs that will contribute and support the great efforts made within the DTES. We are implementing donation programs which all proceeds will go to charities that will be crowd-source picked by our patrons and residents of the DTES as well as creating food programs for residents of the DTES. During the build process we worked with groups in the neighbourhood, including The Window and Beauty Night, we also gave work to those that asked on the construction site as well as outside. Upon opening we have employed 2 DTES residents, local recycling, window washing, Blue Shell for linens and interior cleaning and will continue to hire within the neighbourhood wherever we can.

When choosing this location we knew that there would be a stark contrast between what is outside and inside. Rather than this being viewed as a negative we believe it starts a conversation, one that is overdue. Our patrons come from the DTES and all over the city, some of which have never taken a step in Pigeon Park. This venue is on the divide between the east and west of the city and can serve as an opportunity to bring a more integrated community, where we can better understand each other’s viewpoints and struggles.

Despite the fact that the protestors have chosen to confront this business, we all agree, there absolutely needs to be more dignified housing and services for low income residents of the DTES, our inability to help those most in need in our society is a horrid reflection of the lack of progress by all levels of government. Rather than us being divided in our fight to help those in need, we welcome a dialogue with them and other community leaders to focus our collective strength on the real problems facing the DTES, not on a small business trying to be socially responsible.


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