Restaurant review: The Pearl

From the February 28, 2013 edition

Beginning with a “snack” menu practically grafted whole from NYC’s Spotted Pig and ending with a dessert lifted from David Chang — and with gobs of Gotham restaurateur Keith McNally’s nouveau-retro style in between — The Pearl might be subtitled “Cameron Mitchell’s Manhattanland.” In any event, with its appealing “instant vintage” appearance, informed waiters and “gastropub’s greatest hits” fare, The Pearl (i.e. the hottest new thing in town), has hit the ground running. Then stumbling. Then zooming back up-to-speed. Then wobbling to pause for a breath.

The former Burgundy Room’s makeover has been drastic. Now the deceptively deep, multi-spaced setup sports white tiles, white painted brickwork, a little oyster counter, leathery brown furniture, fanciful (and apothecary-type) geegaws glittering on shelves, repurposed-bottle chandeliers, plain wooden floors and “rustic” tables. There’s also a collection of framed quotes wherein Mitchell’s words join the ranks of, uh, Hemingway’s, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, Charlie Trotter’s and Ben Franklin’s.

The infectiously fun, super-high energy joint’s run by a well-drilled team wearing jeans with checked shirts or a curiously gents-only get-up of silver vests, ties and white button-downs. The soundtrack — like the menu — is a tasteful-enough collection of once-edgy classics from, say, the Velvet Underground, Curtis Mayfield, even the Stone Roses. Expect “unassuming” (read de rigueur) dish towel napkins and “humble” Mason jars for drinking.

Let’s have a drink. Pearl’s beer selection is fantastic, but since no trend’s been left unturned, there are also $10 boozy punches ($38 for party-perfect bowls) and $10 barrel-aged cocktails. I loved both fresh fruit-garnished punches — the lively, bright and licorice-tickled Citrus and its cidery, cinnamon-hinting Bourbon Apple brother. Barrel-aged-wise, the Manhattan was far more interesting than a limeade-like Margarita.

Pearl’s snacks and starters scored high. Try the addictive and generously portioned Crispy Fried Curds ($9) — lightly crusted, gooey cheese nuggets served with thick, beefy gravy. Devils on Horseback ($9) — crispy little bacon-wrapped dates and “aged” molten cheese with a neat, shallot-y sorta chimichurri sauce — likewise kicked familiar butt. Too rich? Check out the smallish but fresh and excellent homemade mixed Pot-O-Pickles ($4).

Oysters are also done right. Three fresh, half-shelled sea breathers on crushed ice go for $8. Four or five kinds are generally offered, and one’s usually a cucumber-y, sweeter and less salty West Coaster — for Neptune’s sake, actually taste the delicate things by slurping them unadorned.

Another highlight was the meaty House Smoked Salmon ($10). It was Goldilocks-ian — not too salty, not too smoky and certainly not too puny.

Road bumps arose with entrees. The best part of a semi-chewy and shrug-inducing, teriyaki-sauced Hanger Steak ($25) — which never meshed with its overlaid fried egg — was the homemade-tasting kimchi side dish. An overly rich Cuban sandwich ($14) sided with delicious (if American chili-like) black beans needed a crisper bun, more pickles and more mustard.

Three out of four pieces of lightly crusted, almost believably Southern Fried Chicken ($18) bore beautifully tender and juicy evidence of brining. Side-wise was a giant cinnamon roll and piggy, sweet and sour greens I quite liked — except for a minor sandiness. When I informed my friendly waiter of this — earlier he’d nimbly answered every nit-picking menu question — he apologized and whisked them away. Then he brought out my pretty great — but late-arriving — Beet Salad ($9). No offers of recompense were made.

Presently, Pearl’s early-in-the-race missteps are easily forgivable — especially after a slice of its custardy, caramelly and faithfully (or shamelessly) Chang-copied Crack Pie ($6).