With artful fusion flair, PiDGiN alights in the Downtown Eastside

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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.

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marc leblanc

Mar 6, 2013 at 2:49pm

not hungry enough for $114 meal

kim hearty

Mar 6, 2013 at 3:21pm

your priorities are backwards. Everyone who can eat here has so many other options. Many foodies have joined the boycott, including 54 would-be patrons who took the time to speak with us picketers. Many diners said as they were leaving, "don't worry, the food's not that great anyway." Ironically, many also said it was over-priced. Why are you promoting this restaurant?

CM

Mar 6, 2013 at 4:25pm

Picketers have so many other options. There are many other restaurants in the area and on the same street, other new ones and other pricy ones. Why are you harrassing this one?

tttc

Mar 6, 2013 at 4:42pm

The food is pretty good and the owners are conscientious. But until the protesters stop the insanity, I will continue to eat there every two weeks and drop by for drinks once a week. This restaurant is a step in the right direction for the area - without it, the argument of gentrification would not even make it into the local papers. The dialogue is good but the protestors have to stop being jerks to customers and innocent bystanders.

Terra

Mar 6, 2013 at 7:37pm

I visited with my girlfriend on Valentine's Day. While there, the protesters banged on the windows and flashed lights inside the restaurant. As we were leaving, they shouted at us and then, in an obvious attempt to intimidate, started following us down the street. At which point I'd had enough. I slowed down, then stopped, exchanged a few choice words. One of them, realizing their "scare tactics" were backfiring hurriedly suggested his friends return to the protest spot which they did, scurrying away like frightened rats.

Although Pidgin is out of my way, I'm making it a point to return as often as I can, partly for the food, but mostly to spite the idiot protesters with their bullying tactics.

RUK

Mar 8, 2013 at 11:32am

@Kim

In other words, you don't lak their kind in y'alls territory? The DTES is y'alls personal property now?

Yes, you might get one restaurant shut down, and will call that a victory. Would that embolden you to shut down the next business and the next and the next?

What do you think would be the likely pushback? How would shutting down a legit business affect the perception of those who actually fund services for the DTES residents who need them?

Can we not take a long view here. The area is going to be populated with businesses. There must be a way to leverage that fact, to use it, to catch on to it.

kim hearty

Mar 8, 2013 at 11:52pm

not one single patron has managed to convince me of how eating a fancy meal at Pidgin takes priority over respecting poor people's struggle to exist in situ. Instead, people have tried to attack me and HDave and the rest of us with accusations and accusations phrased as questions - which we answer patiently. If anyone would explain how one man's right to profit trumps a whole community's right to exist, i would gladly stop devoting my life to these pickets and content myself with voting Vision.

Allison, eater of cake.

Mar 9, 2013 at 9:12pm

Wow. Vancouver sure does set it's standards low when it comes to giving business owners the badge for being "socially conscientious", huh? I didn't know all it took was opening an ultra exclusive restaurants in the poorest part of town & occasionally handing out sandwiches... or should i say "A deductible expense that can be used to offset one's revenue & tax payments"?

Rico

Mar 12, 2013 at 4:31pm

Kim hearty,
Ignoring this specific restaurant it appears this protest is about gentrification. Assuming the amount of affordable units in the DTES can be maintained (and I am sure it can) specifically what is wrong with gentrification?

ccforrest

Mar 13, 2013 at 1:32pm

How are the current protests against this restaurant any different from the outrage against locating emergency shelters and other services within view of the wealthy? Poor people don't want to look at a bunch of tacky yuppies shoving their gobs with $50 meals any more than said yuppies would like to see a soup kitchen set up on their block. It is just an attempt to stop the invasion and takeover of their homes, only the average DTES resident doesn't have Kerry Jang on speed-dial, so other tactics must be used.

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