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Fighting Fusion

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When I read about the opening of Pidgin, a new fusion restaurant in East Vancouver, I was excited by the prospect of trying something new. I made plans to go, completely unaware of the protesters who were about to make headline news. As the day approached, news of the protests began to pop up on Twitter, then on the news, and soon it seemed everyone was talking about it. I was anxious but even more curious about the controversial restaurant.

The Controversy

When I arrive at the restaurant, there is a wall of protesters armed with signs and flashlights. They carry cardboard signs with scrawled slogans like, “Feed the poor, eat the rich!” They yell out “Have you ever been starving?” at the well-dressed patrons entering the restaurant. Feeling half-apologetic but also half-starved, I move through the protesters and step inside. The place is packed and surprisingly beautiful. Though it seems dark from the outside, the restaurant inside is bright. Its white-tiled space with copper fixtures hosts a collection of interesting installations from a collaboration between designer Craig Stanghetta and local artist Ricky Alvarez.

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Pidgin’s busy kitchen where chefs strive to work with local ingredients.

The Atmosphere

It is simply done and romantic—or would be romantic, except the windows have been papered over due to the protesters. The protesters are demonstrating against gentrification of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. They argue that upscale businesses like Pidgin have displaced lower income residents. The block of buildings where Pidgin is located were apartments until they were closed in 2008 and the tenants promptly evicted. The building was vacant until Pidgin opened its doors this February. “When choosing this location we knew that there would be a stark contrast between what is outside and inside,” Pidgin’s owners said on their website about the decision to open an upscale restaurant in an impoverished area. “Rather than this being viewed as a negative, we believe it starts a conversation, one that is overdue. This venue is on the divide between the east and west of the city and can serve as an opportunity to bring a more integrated community, where we can better understand each other’s viewpoints and struggles.” Pidgin draws on traditional French cooking mixed with Japanese simplicity and flavour—with a little Korean barbecue. Featuring mostly locally sourced food, Pidgin offers an East-meets-West dining experience. Chef Makoto Ono specializes in fusion foods. He grew up in Winnipeg and found inspiration in his parents’ sushi bar.

Feeling half-apologetic but also half-starved, I move through the protesters and step inside.

Chef Ono has worked in, and opened, award-winning restaurants in cities around the globe. The food is not the only draw; the bar features local beers from Parallel 49 Brewing and local sake from Granville Island’s Artisan Sake Maker.

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A share plate with humpback shrimp, citrus, and celery

The Food

Pidgin aims to be active in the community, but the restaurant is active in the social media world as well. They post daily on both Facebook and Twitter with pictures of featured drinks and special menu items. I order a sake cocktail with grapefruit, pear, and kumquat flavours. It is an absolutely beautiful shade of pink and is one of those drinks I dearly wished came in a pitcher. My favourite dish of the evening is a quinoa salad accompanied by humpback shrimp with a seafood bisque and salmon roe. It perfectly demonstrates Ono’s style of simple staples plated with Asian elegance. It is delicious, but the portions are small. Another dish worth mentioning is the scallops served with fried polenta. Each dish served up is like a modern art piece. The servers are friendly and are all foodies; each dish is enthusiastically explained. Though walking through a group of passionately angry people is intimidating, I enjoyed the atmosphere of the restaurant and appreciated the subtleties of each dish. I will come back, if for nothing else than the fantastic and inventive cocktail list. Next time, however, I would approach the restaurant as more of a tapas bar with a great cocktail list than a place for a filling dinner.

Pidgin Restaurant is located at 350 Carrall Street, Vancouver. Reservations recommended.

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2013 Pacific Rim Cover, "Impossible Choices" Cover Story. Image of Marilou Tuzon.

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