With such high expectations and having been on my ‘list’ since it opened, Pidgin solidly continues on the same path it started on in 2015 but did I go a little too late?
Pidgin is the sort of restaurant that’s right up my alley - an affordable and creative tasting menu with interesting wines from unique producers. Perfect. The menu is seasonal and impressively has never once been repeated, with its aim to show off kitchen’s skills but most importantly the freshness of the ingredients and produce. Winning The Guardian’s 2017 Best Restaurant, it seemed the hype hadn’t faded.
Buried in Hackney, down a very quaint and calm road you’ll find Pidgin sitting inconspicuously amongst a handful of independent shops and cafes. The interior matches the external with its simplicity and clean, bright shades accented with a bit of grey and a running shelf of empty wine bottles along the walls. A visual amuse bouche if you will.
Greeted and served by a few very serene almost bordering nonchalant staff, we took our seats by the window and were shortly served a couple of snacks. Crispy chicharron curls with a not quite tangy enough or anything enough rhubarb spot on the top and underneath. This wasn’t an awful start, but not quite the mouth amuser or conversation interrupter either. Ah well.
We opted out of the wine pairing, wanting instead a lighter lunch on a heat wave of a day. Happily serving us both a couple of wines to each try, our waitress oddly took away the unfinished chosen wines to bring back the full glasses. A little bit of an odd move to me - I’m used to having the wine tasting stay and a fresh, new and full glass brought out as opposed to a top up - but maybe I’m being a wine hoarder.
Back to the food, the first of the official four courses was a crayfish orecchiette. Served delightfully neat and clean, the small pasta cups were fresh and perfectly chewy, the ponzu sauce umami and rich but I seemed to have lacked the main event. The crayfish existing on my plate was a meagre tail cut in two and as a result, contributed very little. Hmm.
Courgette was to be the star of the next course, presented again, in a neat and very summery package. A round courgette grilled and half-hollowed out arrived with a pile of peas and broad beans inside and a few pretty, delicate leaves sitting on top. It had an interesting addition of wild garlic despite its season having passed, so that would explain why I couldn’t detect any of the special spring delicacy but I could certainly see it’s almost-neon green juices. Each part - peas, beans and courgette - was cooked perfectly and each with a bite but the textures really didn’t make up for the lack of flavour. It tasted under seasoned and bland, showing once again, looks aren’t everything.
At this point, I felt like I was getting to know the restaurant. What had been presented so far ticked all of the important boxes for Michelin-esque creativity, presentation and seasonality (ish) without the pretentious vibes from yesteryear. Three years ago, this experience would have been profound for £45 and in Hackney of all places. Today, so far however, it felt a little lacking and lazy compared to its Hackney neighbours.
Things started to look up though. A good hunk of slow cooked and gelatinous lamb came out next, alongside polenta fried sweetbreads, and a crisp shard of cavelo nero giving a nod to the chef’s Asian roots by tasting a lot like “seaweed” from the Chinese (not a bad thing!) These all sat on top of a few different drops and smears of lovage, apricot and maitake. The diversity on the plate would have made the Masterchef judges incredibly giddy. It was a good plate indeed.
As the restaurant was seemingly quietening, our last two dishes came out in quick succession. A palate cleanser cream soda sorbet with kiwi and tarragon, and then what looked like a square cloud on top of a poofy cloud. A square and lightly burnt square marshmallow sat on top oodles of foam, hiding a mix of fig and crunch underneath. A daring finish particularly as the hefty parmesan foam didn’t quite compliment the lack of sweetness from the fig, which in its defence was only in its infancy and not ripe enough to stand up on to the savoury flavours it was next to. Not quite the ending I’d have hoped for; I should have stopped at the sorbet.
Weirdly for me the menu became more interesting as it continued, which might be an ode to the fact that the first few dishes underwhelmed and lacked that delight to satisfy from the get go. To leave a place like Pidgin just calling the experience pleasant is disappointing. The creativity is still there, the atmosphere has successfully kept its cool and not edged into Hackney hipster pretentiousness over the years but something was definitely missing.
At the risk of sounding like an absolute London “foodie” w*nker, if you were to take a non-foodie for a date or an aunt from out of town, this would mostly likely be ranked high up on their great eating experiences. For the food and restaurant obsessed Londoner though, there are now others out there a bit more special, much more seasonal, and in the same price range and area. Pidgin was clearly one of the trendsetters for East London but it feels like it hasn’t quite kept up since.