James Ramsden and Sam Herlihy are very funny men. Piss-yourself-on-the-tube funny. It’s impossible to listen to an episode of their The Kitchen Is On Fire podcast without laughing. They spend an hour or so each week talking bollocks, occasionally related to food, often not. They produce their own adverts a million miles away from the standard Sponsored by Squarespace: the past few episodes include Tom Hardy’s Bane and the computer voice from Radiohead’s Fitter, Happier, both flogging wine for a sponsor. And when they do get around to discussing food, they do it with a confidence and a sense of ownership that betrays the what I’m sure is tens of thousands of hours they’ve collectively spent thinking, writing and talking about food.
In preparation for this post, I went back and listened to their very first episode – I started following around ep.110 – and was struck by a conversation about five minutes in. They’re sat there, a couple of awkward giggles, fumbling a little, finding their voices; all very first-podcast stuff. James asks Sam why they’re doing it: “For me, a lot of the talk about food - particularly in this country - is bound by tradition; and when it’s not, the English version of food not bound by tradition tends to be...”, he pauses, searching for ‘Reggae-Reggae Sauce’, “it doesn’t all have to be the same six or seven people talking about the same six or seven dishes over and over again”.
This was true in 2014. It’s changing now. The rise of publications like Eater and Foodism offer avenues for people to discover new, varied, different food. Food TV is changing: David Chang’s Ugly Delicious feels a bit like a Tarantino movie; Aziz Ansari’s sfoligno storyline in Master of None; even Chef’s Table is resetting the focus onto food as a central component of our shared experience, rather than the tired old straight-to-camera itinerary in sterilised studios.
Restaurants are changing, too. Honest Burger tells a telling story. Food trucks turn to pop-ups turn to crystallised moments in the restaurant zeitgeist. And so, fan of the show, how excited I was to discover that not only have James and Sam started a restaurant, their first foray had won a Michelin star; and, off the back of the success of the first, they’d started a second.
James and Sam have set themselves the unenviable task of rewriting the menu, in its entirety, every week. Some fifty pounds buys you a four-course set menu. According to its website, in over two years, they have yet to repeat a single dish. When the menu changes so frequently, it’s difficult to judge it on the success of any given plate of food. It lives and dies with the experience you have: the meal in its soaring, all-encompassing totality. As George Reynolds wrote, “it is the other stuff – the stuff that writers usually pick up on only when a restaurant gets it wrong – that remains.” The other stuff was executed mostly well. The food was executed mostly well. It was a perfectly pleasant, clever meal.
We began with what was a solid, crisped version of French onion soup. Egg slow cooked, green onion sauce, onion tapioca. If only there’d been some gratinéed Gruyère. Onion was followed by Mackerel. Mackerel was followed by beef. Beef was followed by a sourdough ice cream – fucking delightful – served with a Jurançon and a brownie with green pepper mousse.
But while the meal sang, it also missed its top C; a menu that changes every week, I think, will rarely hit the the higher notes. There’s still the Asian influence of its founding chef, Elizabeth Haigh (mackerel cured with soy and miso), but it feels less confident than it once seemed. I’m talking out of my arse, of course – I’ve only visited once – but other reviews have given me vicarious second opinions. What could have thrilled, sent shivers down spines, only lightly grazed the thigh.
It was quite a lovely evening (I think my friend Jess was less impressed; but it may just have been my company). But the little things that pulled it down were, I think, most of its on-paper charm. The beef dish was perfectly cooked, but dull. It needed heat: mustard, I suggested; horseradish, Jess countered; as usual, she was right. It was the sort of minor problem that would have been figured out, corrected, and laughed about, had the dish been on the menu for longer than six days. The décor was lovely: it’s a tiny little shopfront on a small Hackney residential street; the closest thing to Honey and Co that I’ve found outside of Honey and Co. The service was perfectly good, but it was spoilt when our waiter was very smarmy when we prevaricated over some wine. He'd been busy – it's a small place – and duly apologised later in the night, but fuck, he was rude.
After our meal at Pidgin, I spent a week or two trying to figure out what I think had gone wrong. Nothing was that obvious (moody service notwithstanding), but something was a little off anyway, and I wanted to work out why.
So I went to Magpie, the duo’s second foray. And it hit me. Magpie felt cared for. It was new, fresh, exciting. It was the lover to Pidgin’s long-term spouse. Whereas Pidgin had set into its ways, Magpie had only just left the nest, featherless and eager to explore.
Make sure you have the whipped lardo bruschetta, and the cumin-baked nuts. I could have feasted on the starters alone, but it was the little meal that could, and it kept on giving. I’d arrived early, so sat at the bar and had a drink or two; a couple of starters set me up well, and, impressed by the nuts as I was, one of the chefs came out and gave me the recipe. Those touches, that care, that thought, set it miles apart from most restaurants – I hadn’t even had the meal by this point – and set it miles apart from Pidgin. If it’s the other stuff that we should focus on, then Magpie scored where Pidgin missed. So much great wine on tap, little trolleys of little plates circulating around its Heddon Street dining hall, staff that laughed and cared. An experience that sang, and hit the top C.
But it wasn’t just the other stuff. The food was superlative. Beef tartare with taleggio and egg yolk; burrata; celeriac ’cacio e pepe’; pork collar with endive; cod with pickled pak choi. Everything was flawless. It was a lovely, lovely, lovely meal. I’m getting drunk and happy just thinking about it. Coffee and mezcal ice cream rounded it all off. Colour and flavour and smell and the bustle of the restaurant; it stuck to my senses.
We’re now in the Open Era of food, and I couldn’t be happier. New people – enthusiastic amateurs – are freer and fitter and happier to experiment, to create, than ever before. The growing Ramsden/Herlihy empire is a wonderful expression of that freedom. They and many others are giving life to a whole new way of thinking and experiencing food, something I’m hoping to explore a more on this blog, something I’m thrilled to be able to witness. But exerting energy is tiring, and it takes the sort of stamina (only acquirable through experience) to maintain it. When the dust settles, the successful restaurateurs will be the ones that manage to slog through the slow times, the recessions, the fads and waves, losing stars, gaining new ones. No matter how fresh and new a place is, it’s only as good as the last plate of food it served. It's something takes a commitment gained through work, nothing else, and so, paradoxically, something gained through time and maturity. Pidgin was born from a supper club; Magpie was born from a restaurant. That's what makes the difference.