Where I live, in a smartish part of North West London, local restaurants are, at best, old fashioned, and at worst off-putting. There’s all the usual ItalianIndianChineseGreek, and pubs that serve the same thing that pubs – let’s not call them gastropubs, anymore – serve everywhere. I don’t mean that any of them are bad, although some aren’t good, but I do mean that none excite me. There is an Iranian, which, at least, is less expected than the others, but what there isn’t, what there isn’t in spades, is a good, modern, British, and good, modern, British excites me a lot.
I went the other night with my regular restaurant companion, Camilla, to Pidgin, in a part of Hackney that’s difficult to get to without a car or taxi, and either will need a functioning sat nav. It sits in a small parade of shops that tell of the trendification of the area since I lived close by for three months in 1990, in the square that Eastenders’ Albert Square was based on. I don’t mean that my going and it coming up are connected, but you never know. It is surrounded by houses that I guess go for £2 million or more, as well as social housing. I would think it’s a nice place to live, as long as you don’t want to leave, and Pidgin makes it even nicer, and less likely that you’d want to.
I like it from the outside. On one side is a frosted window behind which the chefs work, on the other a small, calm dining room. There’s only room for twenty-four covers, including a few seats at the bar. The walls are painted a neutral colour, maybe called dropcloth, or shore, or something equally specific, and are decorated with bare branches. There is music playing, maybe by a band called Dropcloth or Shore, too. I’m not a fan of music in restaurants, but it’s very background-y. Like the colour of the walls, it gets in the way of nothing.
It was a Tuesday night and the room was full. Every restaurant critic and food blogger in London has been to, and loved, Pidgin recently. I may be the only one yet to eat there.
The menu is set, as it was at Lyle’s. It’s a fashionable thing to do, I suppose, and I don’t mind at all. I like it for two reasons: the first is that there isn’t that awful period when you arrive of looking down at a menu when what you most want to do is look up at your friend. The other reason, and this was made very clear by the meal we ate, is that the chef has considered how the courses fit together, how one plate works after the last. I thought the progression of dishes was seamless, each taking your palette along a different road in the same country, the destination a town called Happy.
We ordered a carafe of Chardonnay. There was a pre-starter, (I won’t say amuse bouche and you can’t make me), of pork belly, oyster mayo and furikake, which I learn is a Japanese seasoning. It was as delicious as anything I’ve ever put into my mouth and a good signpost for what was to come.
We had a lot to talk about. We’re both making difficult decisions about our lives. Not, I mean, about our friendship, but things outside it. Stuff. Big stuff. We talked seriously for an hour while each course arrived and empty plates were taken away. With each dish our conversation lightened, our brows unknitted, our shoulders relaxed. The decisions each of us need to make didn’t become easier, but the pleasure/pain scales of our lives started to tip in another direction. This is what good food in good company can do. By the time we had the beef in front of us we were laughing.
The menu changes every week, but here’s what we ate:
Sea trout tartare, dashi jelly, sea vegetables, limonata gel, wild garlic flowers
Miso-grilled asparagus, deep-fried egg, pepita sambal
Dexter beef, beef fat, fried rice cakes, BBQ peas, mushroom
Buttermilk sponge, milk ice cream, fruit powders
It was all lovely, but the stand out parts for me were the strips of beef, crimson within, black without, what Italians call tagliata, I think, and the dessert. The cake and ice cream as light as blossom, the fruit powders fizzing like tiny fireworks. Throughout, the textures surprised us, made us smile. Camilla, who knows more about this sort of thing than I do, called it fine-dining. I think the friendliness of the place, the charm of the waiter, the warmth of the room, all mitigated against the scariness of a phrase such as that. It was, at least, very fine cooking, and very fine eating, indeed. I love this modern British style of food.
Two beautiful, apple and pink peppercorn jellies came with the bill. It was like they knew I have a weakness for fruit jellies and needed further convincing of the merits of the place. I did not. I’d love a box of them for in front of the Good Wife later and for Pidgin to open a restaurant in NW3, no more than 100m from my flat. It would be a good argument against moving.
Set menu is a very reasonable £37.50. Booze and service on top.
Pidgin, 52 Wilton Way, London, E8 1BG
The pictures I took were terrible. These beauties, what I ate in the order I ate it, are by Pidgin.