By now, everyone's heard of Pidgin – even those who have no intention of ever going. This is the restaurant in the Downtown Eastside that's become the target for daily protests against neighbourhood gentrification. Politics aside, it's interesting that they chose Pidgin, because in so many ways, this is the restaurant of the future.
Pidgin isn't a fine-dining restaurant, but it's too elegant to be called casual. You can sit at the bar and snack on chicken wings or reserve the chef's table next to the kitchen and spend hours gorging on a 10-course tasting menu. There is no distinction between appetizers, main courses and sometimes dessert (the half duck is served with carrot cake batter). The flavours are a mash-up of Chinese, Korean, Japanese and European cuisines, and there are a lot of vegetable plates.
The only thing about Pidgin that is clearly defined is the design. You can tell this is a Craig Stanghetta room the minute you walk through the door. The creamy palette, the high-gloss white ceiling mouldings, the quirky installations made from antique scissors, the marble pendants strung like necklaces on the bathroom walls, the odd piece of stuffed taxidermy – they're all his signatures.
Try to get one of the floating high-top booths across from the bar. They really are suspended above the old tiled floor, affixed by their sides to the room divider.
The bar program really speaks to how traditional dining is being turned on its head. The list includes a whole page of single-malt scotch and only four wines by the glass (served on tap, as are a couple of sakes). The craft cocktails are beautifully presented. The Mary Ellen Smith, for example, is a refreshing gin and carbonated sake spritzer garnished with a long peel of cucumber spiralled around the inside of the glass.
Makoto Ono is the executive chef behind the glass-walled kitchen. The expectations are high. Raised in Winnipeg, where his parents opened the city's first sushi bar, he shot to fame in 2007 as the inaugural winner of the inaugural Canadian Culinary Championships Gold Medal Plates. Recruited to Beijing by some high rolling investors, he opened Makoto restaurant for the Olympic Games, and later moved to Hong Kong, where he launched the lauded Liberty Exchange.
Mr. Ono does snack food very well. His chicken wings, battered in potato flour and drizzled with a spicy house-made gochujang (Korean chili paste) are not the least bit greasy. Bitter shishito peppers, lightly blistered and dusted with Parmesan, are great for picking. A raw oyster shot, packed in a glass with horseradish cream and apple juice, is an invigorating mouthful of hot brininess that plays all sorts on tricks on the tongue.
There's a sense of adventure on his plates. Kohlrabi (a turnip) is cut into long, thin "dan dan noodles" tossed in a spicy Sichuan sauce that doesn't pull its punch. But it's too bold a dish for fussy tofu brittle slivers, which just get lost in the mix.
Beef tartare is another slightly off-balance fusion. I could eat the fermented miso cream garnish by the spoonful. Wasabi-infused tobiko (flying fish roe) add sinus-clearing textural pops. But the beef itself, which appears to be flank, is roughly cut and full of sinew that gets caught in the teeth.
Some of the simplest dishes are the best. Wild mushrooms with sugar snap peas soak up the richness of soy-yuzu brown butter. Pork belly is punctuated with crisp Asian pear and smoked bamboo.
But the seafood was problematic. Sea urchin was past its due date and tasted so strongly of iodine it obliterated the silky cauliflower mousse and ponzu-jalapeno salsa. One day, the humpback shrimp, lightly cured in citrus, was fresh and snappy. Another day, it was warm and slimy.
Pidgin is worth checking out. The chef is full of great ideas and his food bursts with bold imagination. He just needs to be less fussy and more focused.
No stars: Not recommended.
* Good, but won't blow a lot of minds
** Very good, with some standout qualities
*** Excellent, well above average with few caveats, if any.
**** Extraordinary, memorable, original, with near-perfect execution