I like James Ramsden. That happens, right? Not just to James Ramsden, either: sometimes you do just like someone, even if you don’t know them that well. He went to my school but was in the year above me and so may as well have been four times my age; our interactions since then have been almost entirely one-way traffic (me reading him as a fledgling and then published food writer; me listening to his podcast a few times; me reading about Pidgin as it grew from supperclub to bricks and mortar success story; I promise I have other hobbies and interests). Only very recently, when he saw something I’d written about Kiln and said some nice things on Twitter, did this asymmetry shift in the slightest; before then I suspect he had not thought about me for a decade, if at all.
I think it’s important to state that I like James Ramsden, because it interests me to consider whether I like Pidgin because I like James Ramsden or because it’s worth liking. It’s been a few days now since I went, and I’ve been torturing myself over a single, central question: just how powerful, how disruptive, is a liking of James Ramsden when it comes to your critical faculties? If I say that the blue corn polenta that accompanied the pig's cheek could have been hotter, but it didn't matter, is that the liking James Ramsden working its insidious black magic, inserting itself between my tongue and my brain, or is it boring old redundant facts trying to chime in, arguing that the flavours of the dish were still absolutely excellent, and that people who insist on piping hot food are typically in the second, rather than first, half of their lives? If I say the cavolo nero with mole and burnt milk was a bit of a dud for me, is a liking of James Ramsden even more powerful than we had previously thought – can it really turn the word “bad” into the word “OK”? – or was is it just that what we ate was more of an assemblage of interesting things – flavours still clear, seasonings on point – than a coherent dish in its own right? If I say the combo of chicken with lobster and grilled pickled little gem was one of the more bracingly, distinctively delicious things I have eaten in London in ages, must we now believe that liking James Ramsden has a steroidal impact on critical vocabulary, pushing otherwise carefully measured words into hyperbole, or can we hope that, yes, actually – it is a wonderful, inspired, combination, at once classical French and oh-so 2016 in its emphasis on something to cut through all that richness? To flog this poor dead horse into the ground one final time, if I say the clarity of the flavour of the violet cream with pudding made up (in my eyes) for the faint whiff of the fryer accompanying the feuille de brick, or the slightly iffily made palm sugar ice cream, must we use “liking James Ramsden” as a new unit of measurement for mass, capable as it so clearly now is of shifting otherwise perfectly calibrated scales, or is there room in this whole sordid boring overlong metaphor for a bit of objective thinking?
The ethical dimension surrounding writing things about restaurants – in short, the truths that you should or shouldn't have to reveal about yourself before your writing clears some magical bar of legitimacy – is a total fucking mess. The ends of the spectrum are pretty clearly defined – at one end: reviewing anonymously, visiting a place multiple times, writing with at least a little knowledge of your subject matter, paying for stuff yourself, not parlaying your position for personal gain; at the other end: [insert renowned food journalist / blogger / Yelp sensation here] – but the middle ground is a whole lot more conflicted. And unfortunately, the middle ground is where plenty of us reside. A blogger advertising the fact they pay for their own food does not get a free pass if they then post photos of themselves posing chummily with a bunch of chefs at a trade-only event; even Elizabeth Auerbach (of Elizabeth on Food), who I’d argue does a pretty good job of laying out some basic personal principles, causes me to pause with her willingness to accept “hospitable gestures of a symbolic nature and importance” (I also find hewing to a 100-point scale but never having marked a restaurant lower than 79 a little odd, but that’s probably on me).
It’s hard, to strip out the ego and the personality and the bias, and I think it’s important, but only a little bit. Total ethical transparency is an illusion, and that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t reach towards it – but that also doesn’t mean that reaching towards it is all we should try to do. As a nice piece by Sarah Henry makes clear – whilst touching on some of the same ethical questions – writing about restaurants is service journalism, but it’s also entertainment, a space where (over time) you get to know a writer’s foibles and (where relevant) discount them like one of your dad’s friend’s earnest views on Brexit. Ah – there’s Giles, reviewing somewhere far from his Kentish Town hunting ground: probably add half a point to the score because he got home later than he’d have wanted and he does get grouchy. Look! It’s Adrian, writing about vegans, again – he’ll have chosen this one especially to savage; don’t bother checking out the restaurant; it’s probably dead already. Ah, so I see Marina’s eating somewhere outside London this week? How terribly good of her.
The same standard does not apply to everyone. Insisting on total ethical transparency among well-known food writers betokens a weird, patronising attitude towards readers, implying they haven’t bothered to develop a critical faculty of their own; it also makes for incredibly boring reading, a solid paragraph of disclaimers before we get to any of the good stuff. On the other hand – to pivot briefly to the other (much larger) part of the market, the part filled with amateurs and Tripadvisors with delusions of grandeur – the impossibility of achieving ethical transparency is perhaps the single most compelling argument in support of shutting down the whole dark web of shit food writing. It is a cesspit of bile and vitriol, petty quarrels over my-lady-wives snubbed and darling-hubbies humiliated at sommeliers’ hands; it is impossible to police; it is pointless to read. A purportedly objective aggregator of personal grievances does not deliver the wisdom of crowds; it magnifies the idiocy of the individual. Offering a positive review in exchange for some gratis scoff does not produce anything of value for anyone, whatever @HungryInHoxton might say about their 753 Twitter followers; it might be the only actual free lunch in existence. Burn them down; burn them all down, and bury the ashes at sea.
Anyway, Pidgin. I really liked it. Even if you accuse me of letting all that liking James Ramsden overwhelm me, some stuff is harder to pin on personal bias. The décor, for example, is just lovely, innately stylish: muted, organic tones rather than the chilly flat white Airspace of a Lyle’s or the bare-filament hipster ubiquity birthed by Russell Norman. The service, too, is exemplary, by anyone’s standards: friendly and conversational and hip but not overbearingly so. At every stage, even the most cosseted diner couldn’t help but thrill to innumerable little touches that make a place feel personal and personable: a ceramic butter dish stamped with the restaurant’s name (topped with an objectively impeccable brown butter butter); the wire shaped into a pigeon’s claw in which the bill is clasped; freebie shots of Pidgin 'cello; a generosity and willingness to compromise on the sacred text of the menu (£32 for double of Pappy Van Winkle was too rich for my blood; offering me a single for £18 meant I was far more willing to take a punt – a win for both restaurant and customer). The whole shebang charmed me immensely; it would charm anyone.
The weird thing is that at Pidgin, this is the stuff that matters most. The beauty and agony of a menu that changes weekly is that carefully considered criticism of the food is rendered obsolete mere days later; it is the other stuff – the stuff that writers usually pick up on only when a restaurant gets it wrong – that remains. I have faith that the kitchen will do excellent things whenever you’re there, but check it out online – if you don’t like the menu now, check it out in a week, or a month. If things go really well, it might be there years from now, and if you do go, you’ll probably be a very different person then from who you are now, will bring a whole new set of biases and impartialities. As long as the story you tell me about it is interesting, I won’t care.