With artful fusion flair, PiDGiN alights in the Downtown Eastside
The protesters have been getting all the press, but what about the food at PiDGiN, the new restaurant located right near the Downtown Eastside’s Pioneer Place, the gathering spot better known as Pigeon Park? For the most part, it’s very good.
The pickets certainly don’t seem to have hurt business: the place was abuzz on a recent Saturday evening, the crowd a mix of young hipsters, families, and fashionable older couples who looked as if they’d just flown in from Paris. The restaurant has posted a response to the protests on its website, with the team saying it has reached out to area residents ever since construction first started and that it welcomes dialogue and collective action to help address the problems in the Downtown Eastside.
Dubrulle Culinary Institute–trained executive chef Makoto Ono—whose parents opened the first sushi restaurant in his native Winnipeg—worked at West before winning the Canadian Culinary Championships’ Gold Medal Plates in 2007. He went on to open high-profile restaurants in London, Beijing, and Hong Kong. He looks to France and the Pacific Rim for his elegant fusion fare.
Inside, PiDGiN’s contemporary room features walls painted white on one side and covered in textured subway tiles on another; round wooden tables of various shades (imagine that—round tables, even for groups of two, a nice change from the ever-present square tops); glorious orchids; and two striking pieces of art: an oddly shaped orange block with what looks like a goose wing stretching out of it, and a sparkling meat cleaver caught in the grip of a white mould of someone’s hand. Manager Hao-Yang Wang and Brandon Grossutti (who co-owns the place with Ono) are extremely hands-on on the floor, running food, filling up water glasses, and interacting with diners with nothing but graciousness.
It’s a comfortable place to sip innovative cocktails, like the Van Horne, which mixes bourbon with carbonated jasmine tea and honeyed ginger. The Hannya, a potent mix of Sauvignon Blanc, gin, cinnamon smoke, and a generous clump of lemon thyme, could tastily kill a virus.
Dishes are meant to be shared. Prices start at $3 for an oyster shot and peak at $26 for Korean-style steak wrapped in red-leaf lettuce, with the average being $11. There’s a beauty to each of Ono’s aesthetically elaborate dishes, but he packages flavours in unique ways too. Beef tataki is a highlight: thin, pink slices of Two Rivers Heritage Angus nonmedicated meat are adorned with miniature squares of Gruyère, chewy wood ear mushrooms, wasabi mayo, teeny potato chips the size of saffron stems, and tangy black garlic, a Korean specialty that’s becoming more common here. (It takes days to prepare, with bulbs being roasted at a very low temperature.)
Foie gras featured prominently the day we visited. (How long till the California ban on the French delicacy makes its way here?) It comes with chestnuts and daikon atop rice and was also a daily special in mousse form with pineapple chutney and taro chips. We opted for mussels, the evening’s other special. Tossed with slices of Chinese sausage, the shellfish is served not just with the usual broth—here a delectable one infused with sake and chili oil and punched up with sprigs of rosemary and thyme—but also with perfectly puréed potatoes taking up half the bowl. Hardly haute chicken wings are mmm-inducing: no wonder, given that they’re brined overnight to make them ultra-tender, then served with a sweet and spicy dressing made of gochujang (Korean fermented chili paste), honey, and soy sauce.
The calamari tanked. Strips of squid come with bacon, but the only discernible taste is that of fishy bonito flakes. The squid ink at the bottom of the bowl doesn’t help. The mushroom plate, with shimeji and shiitake, is pretty to look at with its sugar-snap-pea coulis; served with a salty hard-boiled egg it’s an interesting combination, if not a taste sensation.
There’s no coffee or tea to be had with dessert—the waiter cited space restrictions—but plenty of scotch and sake to choose from, as well as a few inventive “zero-proof” beverages. A vanilla pudding topped with house-made crispy rice and cubes of yam trumped the chocolate fritters, though the latter’s matcha sauce was a cool accompaniment.
We’d go back for the scallops and fried polenta with XO sauce—and probably more of those chicken wings. Dinner for two with two cocktails, a glass of wine, a non-alcoholic beverage, and two desserts came to $114 before tax and tip.