Don’t just look at the star rating and move on, read the words
If anything symbolises the obstacles London’s insane property market throws in the way of budding restauranteurs, then it’s the location of Pidgin. Located in a mostly residential area on a side street with a handful of other shops, passing trade is probably going to be sparse and reliance on local regulars is likely to be high. Plus, its meagre 26 covers (including four tightly spaced seats at the metal-topped bar) practically demands booking ahead. The even tinier kitchen is headed up by Elizabeth Allen, formerly of the original Islington branch of Smokehouse.
The menu is even smaller – a £35 set menu of just four courses, it challenges the commonly-held misconception that a choice of a large number of dishes is automatically a good thing. Indeed, I saw more than a few potential punters put off by the pint-sized menu. Although the menu changes every week, the small number of courses gives the kitchen little leeway for mistakes – every course has to be a winner to win valuable custom and turn that sceptical punter into a regular visitor, or at least a fan willing to spread the word to others.
First things first
Bread and butter are often overlooked at many restaurants and not given the due attention that they deserve. That’s certainly not the case here, at least not with the butter. Although it has the appearance of hard and stale butter, its creaminess was matched only by its comte-style nuttiness with a hint of saltiness. The crusty sourdough was an excellent way of conveying this dairy delight into my mouth.
After such a sterling start, quality took a little dip with the ‘pork fat and peas’. Although the slice of sourdough was topped with firm, squishy peas and a hint of chilli, it was ultimately a muted affair due to the surprisingly bland lardo. As far as I could tell from the small amuse bouche-style serving, it was almost totally lacking in the fatty, salty unctuous flavour yet light and whippy texture that I’ve come to expect from lardo. Disappointing.
Although the firm octopus tentacles had a zingy freshness, none of the octopus’ accompaniments were especially complimentary. They were all nuanced and complex in their own right, from the lightly creamy almond milk dotted with herby oils to the zesty hints of lemon and the sharp apples, but they all clashed with the octopus.
It was a similar story with the beef. The thin slices were cooked very rare with the individual muscle fibres of each glossy slice plainly evident. Tender yet occasionally chewy, the meat had a sharp beefy tang of fresh, well-lived and recently butchered cow. It was therefore a shame that only the moreish red wine jus suited the beef. The boldly earthy beetroot and almost candy-like sweetness of the pickled carrots were both superb in their own right, but felt out of place when taken with the beef.
Panzanella is a Tuscan bread salad, but the panzanella on this occasion was a sweet dessert that paid homage to its namesake with its torn chunks of brioche. Although advertised as fennel brioche, the fluffy tufts of carbohydrates tasted more of sweet olive oil. The very ripe, exceedingly sweet strawberries were complimented neatly by the licorice-esque Thai basil. The ice cream was neutrally flavoured, but it was very creamy and smooth with no large, annoyingly crunchy ice crystals. Each individual element – brioche, fruit and ice cream – were all very pleasing, especially the brioche, but didn’t quite come together as a cohesive whole.
Going back for seconds
Crab Crackling is just a few words away from an amusing alliterative allusion, but this amuse bouche was lacking in more important ways too. The moist, lightly oily crackling pork skin was unctous and crunchy, but the chilled crab spooned on top left me unmoved, while the hints of spice and sourness were far too transient.
Far better were the supple, smoky and tart leaves of gem lettuce which contrasted neatly with the moderately meaty, slightly oily and very crunchy chicken skin. The dusting of pecorino cheese left me cold, but a hint of zestiness helped cut through both the smokiness of the lettuce and the meaty oiliness of the chicken skin.
If you’ve only ever had goat in South Asian and Caribbean stews and curries, then the things Pidgin can do with goat will profoundly change your perception of the meat. The unctuous, fatty, salty doner-like shreds of goat meat would’ve been more than good enough on their own, but were joined by delicately rare medallions. Cooked just so, the earthiness of the medallions was surprisingly subtle and multi-layered, enhanced further by the thin, lightly creamy puddle of goat’s milk. The excellence of the meat wasn’t quite matched by the accompanying vegetables. Crisp radish slices and firm peas in their pod were satisfactory enough, but the firm baby potatoes served at room temperature left me cold. Still, the goat. Oh, the goat.
In this age of Krispy Kreme doughnuts, it’s easy to forget our own native version of this baked delight. Pidgin’s version was free from excess oil and had a crisp, yielding exterior that gave way to a soft and fluffy bread-like interior. The filling was disappointing though – the tartness and sourness of the pickled cherry jam was far too subdued for my liking. To be fair, if the jam had gone too far in that direction then it could’ve ended up like umeboshi (Japanese pickled plums) – lip-pursing levels of tartness and sourness that’s definitely an acquired taste. Still, the smooth, creamy ice cream hit the spot. Despite being somewhat boozy, it had a clean, pure aftertaste that was a perfect palate cleanser after the relative heaviness of the doughnut.
Three is the magic number
The bread and butter during my second meal at Pidgin was essentially identical to the way it was the first time around. It was different during my third and final meal, but not in a bad way. While the bread was much the same, the butter now tasted of salty popcorn with a lightly burnt, caramelised edge that was utterly beguiling. This taste wasn’t quite as consistently and constantly bold as the comte-like flavour of the previous butters, but it was still profoundly good.
A small segment of firm and fresh artichoke was dressed with a mildly tangy fennel oil and a hint of garlic cream, but the latter was far too bland. This amuse bouche was quite attractive with its Kandinsky-esque looks, but in the end just tasted far too dull.
Pidgin’s savoury take on panzanella was far more pleasing. Tomato segments with a punchy umaminess were joined by fluffy, malty bites of toasted bread. Binding those two together was an anchovy sauce with a salty fishiness that become stronger the more your swirled it, or the sauce-covered tomato and bread pieces, in your mouth. I couldn’t detect any of the promised parmesan, but this was still a delightful and accomplished updating of the classic panzanella.
Although only just visible in the top right hand corner of the photo below, the smoked pork collar was astonishing. Its salty, earthy and musky flavours, as well as its denseness, were seductively good. It was a touch chewy too, but none the worse for it. Equally good were the zingy, firm clams which, unsurprisingly, went down like gangbusters with the quivering bonito flakes. This sublime salty seafood sequence surprisingly didn’t mesh well with the pork, but the accompanying vegetables were a good match for both pork and clams. Tender cubes of clean-tasting potato and small slices of soft, refreshingly sweet watermelon shouldn’t have worked together, never mind with pigs or molluscs, but they did.
Pidgin’s peach pudding was almost perfect. The ‘burnt’ zabaglione had a lovely rich vanilla flavour to it that meshed beautifully with the surprisingly oozy, partially melted bits of meringue. The poached pickled peach had the colours of watermelon and rhubarb, but its intensely sweet flavour was unmistakably that of peach and it was immensely pleasurable when taken with a bit of mergine, smothered in zabaglione. There was only one misstep, but it was a big one – scatterings of mint that were so overpowering in their toothpasteness, they drowned out everything else. Pushing them to one side was a wise move.
Pidgin’s small dining room can become packed out later on in the week and this popularity is, for the most part, well-deserved. Some dishes, such as the tomato panzanella and the pickled peach pudding, will linger in my dreams forever. The kitchen is particularly adept at choosing quality meats and cooking them with care and finesse, producing fantastic results – the goat and pork collar are clarion testaments to this skill. There were a worryingly high number of dishes that were unbalanced or just didn’t work though, hence the reluctant Three Star rating instead of the Four I was tempted to give. Still, Pidgin’s kitchen shows immense promise and I hope this potential is fully realised.
Address: 52 Wilton Way, London E8 1BG
Phone: 020 7254 8311
Opening Hours: Tuesday-Friday 18.00-22.00. Saturday noon-14.00 and 18.00-22.00. Sunday noon-14.00 and 18.00-21.00. Closed Mondays. Last orders taken approx. 30 minutes before closing.
Reservations: essential on or around weekends; otherwise highly recommended
Average cost for one person including soft drinks and service charge: £45-50 approx.