I like the name. It’s very London: both representative of the city, and those formidable kamikaze Columbidae pest-shitters of a million London car windows. Well, until you peer closer at the spelling, and realise that, in fact, it’s not pigeon, as in pigeon, but Pidgin, the form of language. Now that is very London, very representative of the capital’s multicultural dining scene and the language of food, people, and misplaced foreign vernacular across a thousand city restaurant menus. It’s communal, collective, and appropriate.
Appropriate, because James Ramsden and Sam Herlihy understand the importance of communal eating. They had success with it under their acclaimed supper club The Secret Larder, where sitting rooms became dining rooms, and the emphasis was on the meeting and greeting of strangers over food: Invite a bunch of strangers, feed them, get them feck-arsed, and they’ll pay for the privilege. Similar characteristics are put into place at Pidgin, where tight chairs and copper-trimmed tables place me close enough to smell the perfume of the lady at the table next to me, without having to sharpen my elbows.
This is one of the last corners of the capital not to be taken over by tattooed and bearded, Converse-wearing baristas and restaurateurs
The restaurant is on a Hackney backstreet off Graham Road, close to London Fields, in the space previously inhabited by much-loved Mayfields. This is one of the last corners of the capital not to be taken over by tattooed and bearded, Converse-wearing baristas and restaurateurs. Wilton Way is perhaps the perfect place for Pidgin. It’s a quiet-ish back road with a line of run-down family-owned businesses that reveal the faded painted names of proprietors outside, like L.H. Brown and A. Johnson & Son. There’s proper character here, with an art gallery and an outpost of Borough Wines. Now, there’s Pidgin.
Ramsden and Herlihy got here early. Wilton Way has all the promise of a Columbia Road style of tourism and trade. What the emergence of the restaurant has done is create a new dining destination, away from the deluge of finger food and sharing plate openings in Soho, Shoreditch, and Bethnal Green. That might be a requisite of exorbitant rental circumstances in other London boroughs, but this is the sort of dining room I want to call my local.
There’s no point recommending it to friends or booking yourself in for seconds
They’ve hired Elizabeth Allen as head chef, formally of the excellent Bubbledogs in Fitzrovia and Smokehouse in Islington, and Margot Tyson, previously of Fish La Boissonnerie in Paris, to lead the front of house. Allen has both the talent and determination to drive this small kitchen, and speaking to her a few days after my meal, reveals her admiration for Ramsden and Herlihy, whom she first met last year and whose interview process included several cooking challenges for the boys.
But what I had, won’t be what you’ll have. Thanks to a weekly changing menu, the food at Pidgin is a merry-go-round of set-course no choice four dishes, priced at £35. This means that if you are lucky enough to be given a course of something so strikingly delectable that puts all others dishes to shame, that lifts the spirits and makes you re-evaluate everything that you ever thought was good, then the chances are that it’ll be off the menu by next week. There’s no point recommending it to friends or booking yourself in for seconds.
Take my scallop crudo starter with ember oil and smoked scallop roe, a stunning piece of artistry, carefully assembled in a small stonecast bowl. The scallop roe was perfectly plump and had that soft, gelatinous texture, absorbing just enough of the ember oil so that it released upon biting. The oil was discovered after an experiment dropping white-hot coal into olive oil, then straining. There was a coffee-roasted carrot cut into two, served with tarragon and buckwheat in a chicken skin jus. Anything with chicken skin is f––king great, jus or otherwise. This was a root-vegetable-based dish that was far more than the sum of its parts; using three core ingredients and manipulating them into a new take on “a side of veg”.
My main was steak onglet, salmuera, charred onion, and chicken fat curly fries. It’s that aforementioned course of something so strikingly delectable that it puts all others dishes to shame. This was an exceptional plate of food, using an undervalued cut of beef rarely exercised to its full potential on UK menus, but cherished throughout France. Here it was thinly-sliced and served medium-rare, having been softened by the salmuera process to keep the meat from drying over a long cooking period. Fries appeared in a small accompanying bowl, to be added or thrown-across at your discretion.
On the evening of my visit, dessert was a delicious assembly of summer fruit with above average size raspberries, sorrel granita, and buttermilk panna cotta; a creamy mix bursting with sweet fruit flavour. The addition of a black pepper shard cut through the panna cotta creaminess while adding bite.
The final serving was an unlisted freebie of chocolate ganache truffles and a shot of Pidgincello, a herbal liquor created in-house. It’s a cooling mix somewhere between Limoncello and Bénédictine, developed by Ramsden after forming the idea of a post-meal drink while holidaying in Puglia. I’m left with the bottle which, following on from a bottle of the organic and delicious Domaine de Clovallon from Languedoc, is more than enough to send me merrily on.
Pidgin’s weekly adapting food and wine menus exercise the talents of the staff and the kitchen. It pushes new and exciting ingredients to the fore – depending on their availability – and forces everyone involved in their creation (and selling), to research and learn. It means that’s there’s no respite, no resting on laurels, and no churning out the same plates week-after-week.
There’s nothing lazy about this. The knowledge of the team is learnt, then tested, then re-learnt and re-tested, seven-days later. It’s the bravest thing a restaurant can do. The talents and creativity of Ramsden, Herlihy, Allen, and Tyson is shown-off, but also tested, and fully exposed. It’s ballsy and creative, and wonderfully brave from a still relatively tenderfoot team on the London dining scene.
Pidgin, 52 Wilton Way, London, E8 1BG UK
020-7254 8311; pidginlondon.com