Last week, Andrew and I met up for dinner at Pearl & Ash over in Nolita, the restaurant opened by Chef Richard Kuo of Frej fame back in February at the old space of Bowery Kitchen. Chef Kuo has worked in the kitchens of wd~50 and Corton, so I knew we were in for some interesting things that evening.
The restaurant's moniker "comes from a story Chef Kuo heard as a child, about how a fine jewel does not need a showy setting."
I loved the interiors of Pearl & Ash. The interior of the 60-seat dining room is finished with light woods, including the table tops and the unevenly arranged open shadow boxes along the walls.
Pearl & Ash boasts a 1,000-bottle wine cellar and a selective offering of specialty cocktails, the handful made only using wine (regular and fortified) and beer -- not using the standard arsenal of spirits available with a traditional liquor license, which specifically fits within the constraints of the restaurant's wine and beer license. That's where Eben Klemm came in -- he carefully crafted a menu of drinks that were apertif-based to creatively work with these strict parameters.
Love the light fixture!
The interplay of pearly woods and dark slate tiles and upholstery really
Beverage menu at Pearl & Ash.
To start, Andrew had The Alley the Icewagon (right) with Dolin Blanc and Coldbrew coffee infused Punt e Mes, which was like a coffee-infused old fashioned. Then I had the Television Tonic with Bugey de Cerdon, byrrh, and strawberries -- a really refreshingly light sangria-like cocktail. Very creative cocktails given the limitations of the restaurant's wine and beer license! Andrew had a white wine after this -- a 2011 sauvignon blanc called Très Vieilles Vignes produced by Domaine Mardon from Quincy in the Loire Valley of France. A nice white to go with the first half of our plates.
The first plate we had was off of the raw section -- ama-ebi (i.e., sweet shrimp) with smoked lime yogurt, radish, and bee pollen. With ama-ebi being right in season, this dish was quite lovely. It had the light citrus notes from the smoked lime and subtle creaminess from the yogurt. The radish added a snappy, crisp texture matching nicely with the bits of bee polen sprinkled atop. It was delightful to see ama-ebi served other than au naturel in sushi restaurants. Very well done!
Our next plate was from the small section of the menu -- octopus with sunflower seed and shiso. The octopus had a nice charred exterior and a really tender interior, and the sunflower seed cream (sauce?) did give a nuttiness to it all, which I found to be great. but it was a bit over-salted with seasoning, making it a little difficult to enjoy completely.
We also had the sweetbread with sherry, mushrooms, and morcilla. The flavors in this dish were good (mushrooms were fabulous), but the sweetbreads themselves were more fried batter than of sweetbread substance. Perhaps if the nuggets were bigger with less breading, the texture of the sweetbread would come out more.
Our last small plate were the pork meatballs with shiitake and bonito. The meatballs had a warm, juicy center, and the bonito added that Japanese flair to them. However, the sauce was quite salty and would've been better if there was either less of it or less salt in it.
From the fish section, we shared the half portion of mussels with hen of the woods and pumpernickel. It was nice not to worry about the black shells and just go straight for the mussels themselves. I loved the broth they were swimming in -- a buttery foam with bits of maitake and hint of pumpernickel.
Also from the fish section, we had a half portion of the rainbow trout with celery, black olive, and pearl onion. With some great Mediterranean flavors, the rainbow trout had the briny-ness from the olives and a toasty crunch from the flash-fried celery leaves. Definitely one of the most interesting dishes of the evening.
From the meat section, we tried the lamb belly and heart with kohlrabi and hazelnut. With the same exact texture as you would have with pork belly, the lamb belly just had that detectable yet enjoyable gaminess to it underscored by the caramelized hazelnuts and leafy kohlrabi. The heart had that dark meat kind of consistency to it, but I'd have to say that the lamb belly had more character and substance to it.
I am so silly to not have taken a photograph of the other dish we ordered from the meat section (see this one from Ryan Sutton's review in Bloomberg) -- quail with almond, pomegranate, and chicken skin. It was by far my favorite dish of the evening. The meat was not only incredibly tender but also deboned for easy nibbling. Nuts like almonds always seem to go well with game birds, and it was no exception here. The chicken skin gave a nice bit of fattiness and crispiness to the quail, and the pomegranate gave a wee taste of autumn amidst a summer evening. I wish we had ordered the full portion of this -- would definitely encore this one at a subsequent visit.
As a side, we had the potatoes with porcini mayo and chorizo. It was a delicious mix of earth, cream, spice, and starch. Great for sharing!
Andrew finished the evening with a glass of red -- a 2011 Côtes du Rhône produced by L'Oustalet from the Rhône Valley of France -- which was as solid as a Côtes du Rhône can be! I went with a dessert wine -- a 2005 late harvest Tokaj Classic from Tokaji, Hungary. With it being a dessert wine, it was a lot sweeter than I had anticipated but still very enjoyable.
For dessert, I had the lemon sorbet with meringue and brown butter. The meringue had a beautiful torched surface and wasn't at all heavy. It made for a nice palate cleanser, punctuating the meal with a light citrus finish over the savories from dinner.
Andrew had the Fernet-Branca ice cream sandwich, which I could've swore was fresh banana, but I am probably mistaken, haha. Fernet-Branca is a bitter and aromatic spirit from Italy, which is made using a secret family recipe that catalogs 27 herbs from five continents, including aloe from South Africa, rhubarb from China, gentian from France, galangal from India/Sri Lanka, chamomile from Italy and Argentina, saffron, myrrh, and elderflower.
It had the elements of a classic ice cream sandwich -- rectangular cakey cookies with ice cream sandwiched in the center plus the wax paper wrapper emphasized that nostalgic feel as well. The Fernet-Branca ice cream was a little subdued in the creaminess, but you could detect little fruity, herbaceous hints of flavor.
Findings: All in all, our dinner at Pearl & Ash was one of mixed feelings. We felt the beverage program (cocktails and wines by the glass) were all home runs -- we thoroughly enjoyed everything we sampled. However, this wasn't the case with the plates we had to share. We found many of the dishes a bit salty, which took away from the focal point of each plate, but with exceptions like the ama-ebi, rainbow trout, lamb, and quail, Pearl & Ash certainly holds some promising potential in the future. Perhaps, the kitchen is still figuring it out its identity and getting its bearings on the direction of its cuisine, so I can fully understand how things can change in the first year of a restaurant's life. Until then, I was only half-impressed with the execution and a tad disappointed with how some of the dishes turned out. But, with that being said, the orchestration of ingredients along in each small plate is innovative and quite original. I'm curious to see the next menu iteration at Pearl & Ash by Chef Richard Kuo -- I am sure it will be even more awe-inspiring and more refined in execution. Looking forward to where Pearl & Ash is headed -- somewhere promising, I'm sure!
Price point: $9 for each raw course, $11-13 for each small course, $15 for each fish course, $14-16 for each meat course, $12-13 for each cocktail, $10-14 for each glass of wine.
--July 18, 2013
Pearl & Ash
New York, NY 10012