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.