The food is good enough to go just for that. The same could be said for the wine program or just the vibe. Individually, they each hold their own, although there are better examples of each by itself to be found around the city or beyond. When all of these elements are combined, however, there is a strength and a synergy that makes Pearl & Ash one of the most purely fun restaurants that I have been to in a while.
The room is long and narrow, but cool, comfortable and not too fussy, even with its honeycomb of nooks and crannies along one wall with its collection of neighborhood ephemera. As most restaurants are these days, it is a bit too dark to fully appreciate the visual artistry of the kitchen, but it is consistent with the clubby atmosphere of the space.
The service is warm and friendly, efficient and energetic with the enthusiasm of youth. Our sommelier, a charming and wine savvy young woman working under the leadership of Pearl & Ash wine guru and partner Patrick Cappiello, was still too young to be cognizant that she is in fact the doppelganger of a young Linda Ronstadt in her prime. This should not be construed as a criticism of her or the place, but simply an observation about the passage of time.
Pearl and Ash has received much notice of its beverage program and rightly so. The restaurant is wine centric and the cocktails are as well as they tend to be lower in alcohol, but still creative and delicious. If all I wanted from a cocktail was to get drunk, I would just drink grain alcohol. While I certainly don’t mind the buzz from alcohol (unless I was to be driving or working), to me a good cocktail, like anything else in the culinary world, is all about balance. The actual alcohol level, low or high, is secondary, so long as the cocktail is interesting, tasty and well balanced. Such were the cocktails my friend and I had here. I had a “John & Evan” composed of Black Cherry Shrub, Pimento Dram and peach bitters, while my friend had a “Teenage Jesus” which was Manzanilla Sherry with Orgeat, crushed pineapple and white ale. Both were refreshing, fun and satisfying. I’m sure each of the cocktails have stories behind their names, but especially with the latter, I’m not really sure that I need to know them.
For food, we ran through the menu of the evening with a series of small plates. Chef Richard Kuo, previously half of the much-heralded Frej pop-up with Frederick Berselius (now of Aska in Brooklyn) was not in the kitchen the night of our visit. If the kitchen suffered by his absence that night, then I can only imagine it to somehow be even more impressive when he is present.
The food rocked. The central focus was deliciousness, but with enough novelty to make everything interesting. Modernist technique, while undoubtedly present, wasn’t front and center except in a few instances. Whatever techniques used, traditional or modern, were done so in an attempt to make the food more pleasing and not to show how clever and creative the kitchen could be. Dishes came out two at a time starting with some raw preparations.My first bites were a hit. The fluke was superb. With ingredients like watermelon and candied ginger, it could easily have ben too sweet, but these were kept in check with Mexican pickled chilis and lime. The overall effect was of a dish that was very refreshing.
Its companion dish, sliced raw scallops with cauliflower, walnut and cucumber was more restrained and tame, but still quite lovely.
The next set of dishes partially continued the raw theme, this time with beef. Hangar steak was prepared as a spicy tartare and served with cocoa, smooth egg yolk puree and thinly sliced dehydrated melba toast shards. The spice was provided by harissa in the tartare. This was pure flavor abetted by the crisp snap of the toast shards. It was a tasty, fun and easy to share dish.
Bread and butter is commonplace at most restaurants, but few do it like Pearl & Ash. Kuo serves smoked whole wheat bread made with maple syrup and whipped chicken fat enriched butter, resulting in a nice sweet and savory blend.
Given the restaurant’s vaunted reputation for wine, we explored the possibilities and concluded that a Riesling would be the best choice to accompany the breadth of what was still to come. Rieslings in general are amongst the most food friendly wines and rarely a bad choice. It wasn’t here, either, as this 2011 from the Mosel was crisp, full bodied and just plain delicious. It had the depth and acidity to go the distance with a variety of dishes and low enough alcohol to not fatigue the palate. Pearl & Ash’s wine list is extraordinary, especially for such a young restaurant. Filled with a plethora of interesting bottles, many with age, an oenophile can be kept very, very happy without breaking the bank.
The next set of dishes started putting the wine through its paces. Tea-cured salmon was a total winner, balancing a variety of flavors without letting any one dominate to the detriment of the others. It also disproved the dictum that fish and cheese don’t mix, but then salmon and cream cheese have been a combo seemingly forever. Regardless, this was a clever and creative combination that worked very, very well.
Asparagus is typically a spring vegetable, but when this good, I will be happy with it whenever. It was cheese that tied the dish to its salmony companion dish, this time cloumage, a fresh curd from Shy Brothers Farm in Westport, Massachusetts. The dish was further enhanced by a bit of red amaranth.
If one was to tell me that my favorite dish of the night at a creative restaurant was going to revolve around meatballs, I might have thought the meal wasn’t going to be very good. It’s not that I don’t like meatballs. I do. I grew up with them. They are good comfort food staples, but they rarely excite me in the way top-tier creative dishes do. Well, these pork meatballs with shiitake, bonito and sopressata are a top-tier creative dish and they were dynamite delicious packed with umami. This was my favorite dish of the meal, but that casts no aspersions on the rest of the meal. These were just that sensational.
The next set of dishes was led by what has become the most well known dish of the restaurant. Ironically, it was one of my least favorite dishes of the evening, though it certainly wasn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination. I believe texture is very important, but this dish was primarily about texture with the very tender interior of the octopus and an almost crunchy exterior from the hot searing fry it was finished with. Aside from the specific textural elements provided by the octopus, the dish could have been anything else as far as the flavors present. The octopus had deep flavors, but of togarashi and not octopus. The rest of the flavors on the late were good, but not compelling enough for me to have masked the flavor of the cephalopod. This was, to me and my dining partner, a dish ultimately more interesting than delicious.
I’m a sucker for sweetbreads and the preparation at Pearl & Ash delighted, but left me wanting more as they were tasty little morsels enhanced by sherry, hearts of palm puree, morcilla, pickled beech mushrooms and nasturtium petals.
Chinese long beans along with haricot verts have become my favorite green beans. I love the way they hold their flavor and stay nice and crunchy with a quick stir fry. Sea urchin is a favorite of mine as well and the combination, while not actually synergistic, was still a very happy pleasure.
The next set of dishes was perhaps the best set of the night. Both were fish dishes and both shone brightly. Tilefish was served with celeriac three ways and pickled ramps. The fish was perfectly cooked and the accents provided the right degree of brightness and complexity.
Right up there for me as my favorite dish of the meal was the skate with sweet corn, pickled onion and snap peas two ways.. The skate was again perfectly cooked in a dish that shouted summer with exquisite balance.
More fish came with the next set, this time trout with black garlic puree, braised leek, fried pumpernickel, sour cream and dill that gave homage to the restaurants Bowery location. This was a very strongly flavored, potentially polarizing dish, not for the faint of palate.
The other half of this set was pickled and roasted carrots with snap peas and an English pea sauce. This was a solid, well constructed dish of contrasting textures and flavors.
The following set brought us into meat, first with a quail dish. The bird was rolled and wrapped with chicken skin, presumably glued together with Activa. The quail was extremely savory and delicious balanced with a sweet pomegranate based accent.
The skirt steak has also been much heralded, but like the octopus earlier, this was somewhat disappointing to me. The steak itself was fine, but despite the quality end of summer ingredients, the combination with tomatoes, squash, basil and pine nuts didn’t quite work for me.
What did work was the wine by the glass program as we shifted to a glass of red each for the meat dishes.
Both the Syrah and the Pinot Noir were excellent, juicy partners for the food.
I’m not typically a big fan of eggplant, but the grilled fairytale eggplant with lamb belly and oregano was unctuous, rich and delicious.
The food kept coming. Potatoes with porcini mayo and chorizo reminded me of patatas bravas. They were savory and satisfying.
So too was the rabbit sausage which brought us to the end of our savory excursion. The menu is large and inviting. It is also consistently good throughout. I had my favorites and some dishes that I did not care for as much as some of the others, but they were all thoughtful, interesting and flavorful combinations, cooked and constructed with skill and a surprising finesse for such a small kitchen, large menu and busy restaurant.
The savories were done, but we weren’t. It was time for dessert. The blueberry based dessert showed creativity and balance. It was good, but not extraordinary.
I preferred the lemon sorbet, with meringue and brown butter, but it too, while good, was not sensational.
While not for everyone, I particularly enjoyed the two ice cream sandwiches. The first was Fernet Branca ice cream with chocolate wafer and the second was a play on The Last Word cocktail. The latter had lime/Chartreuse ice cream with juniper cookie. Fernet Branca, notoriously bitter, was tamed somewhat in the process. These were both fun and tasty without being too sweet. They were ideal endings for a terrific and completely fun dining experience.
The fun didn’t stop there though and this was one of the things that makes Pearl & Ash special. Each component of the experience is very good, but the vibe pulls it altogether with true synergy. Pearl & Ash, as constructed, is a restaurant that is truly of NYC and one that could not be replicated as such in too many other places. It is naturally hip in a way that only a NYC joint can be. This is best personified by the abandon with which Patrick Cappiello sabers sparkling wines and beers whenever the opportunity presents itself. It’s all in the spirit of fun!