Thursday, March 28, 2013


Pearl & Ash transcends its name.   Derived from a childhood story recalled by chef Richard Kuo about appreciating the inherent beauty of things without fancy display, the creatively finessed output of this kitchen is both beautiful and delicious.  The room has a sultry glow emitted mostly from the illuminated walls, the one behind our table a composite of blonde wood cubbyholes filled with quaint, homely tchotchkes,

miniature statues and vessels.  We were greeted just as warmly and seated immediately, though the hour was early and the restaurant sparsely peopled.  As the evening progressed, this would change to reach capacity.

There was a palpable electricity looming about, perhaps inspired by the chef's former proximity to wunderkind Frederick Berselius, who is currently doing magical things at Brooklyn's Aska.   Pearl & Ash exhibits glimmers of the moss/ash/lichen mania, but stabilizes himself with a locavore humility and ardent seasonality.  We decided to go the small-plate route, although one can opt for the traditional app/main/side/dessert tact as well, as the more substantive plates are offered in tasting or entree sizes.  The dishes come out as the chef pleases, and our first dish was a remarkable construct of Tim Burton-esque octopus tentacles that
cast eerie shadows onto the white porcelain plate.  Rubbed black with zesty spices and paired with fresh, herbal shiso, the meat of the cephalopod was startling white against its heavy coat of spice, with just enough chew to elicit a slightly naughty, barbaric sensation with each bite, tempered by masterful seasoning and the rich puree below, nutty with sunflower seed.

 At the same time arrived a shallow bowl of de-shelled mussels (for your convenience) swimming with chewy fronds of matsutake mushroom underneath a flurry of microgreens in a buttery, herb-flecked broth sprinkled with tiny crunches of pumpernickel crouton.  No bread is offered or available, so make use of the wide-bowled spoons to appreciate every last drop of the luscious broth.

Skate, chermoula, cauliflower, leeks

Cod, white beans, black olives, tomato

Next came the Best in Show dish, a meltingly tender skate wing charred with chermoula atop a divinely silky cauliflower puree and topped with braised leeks, delightfully slimy against the crisp-edged fish. Consequently, it was hard to appreciate the lovely cod in comparison, smeared with black olives and roasted bits of tomato atop a smooth mash of white beans, fine a dish as it was.

A nod to his Scandinavian predecessor, Kuo serves up delicate filets of relatively mild mackerel with a deconstructed potato salad.  Steamed rounds of new potato and pickled cucumber slices of the same proportion face an unfortunately sweet slick of reddish-pink sauce, which reminded me of those little packets of duck sauce you get with Chinese take-out.  I couldn't quite make sense of this dish, although the mackerel itself was probably the best I've ever had, and the potatoes dense and toothsome.  On the meatier side, veal cheeks were not quite meaty enough in texture, exhibiting a sort of spongy texture which I'm not sure was intentional, given that I've never had veal cheeks before.  Normally, however, the cheek is lean and meaty, giving it an ideal consistency, which left me wondering if maybe these weren't a tad undercooked.  The lighting at Pearl & Ash is dim, however, and I couldn't easily scrutinize the morsels without offense.  It came with exquisite little fried arancini of forbidden rice, simultaneously crisp and chewy and potentially addictive were there more than four.  These would make dangerous bar snacks.
 Brussels sprouts with pearl onions were finally liberated from a porcine cohort in a preparation that is somehow just as savory and decadent as those with.    They were perfectly roasted, with tinges of char and a buttery nuttiness that perfect cooking brings out in these fine little crucifers.

 A more fitting finale to our meal could not have been scripted.  There are but two options: a coffee semi-freddo and a fernet-branca ice cream sandwich, of which we chose the latter.  Moments after our coffee order arrived (a tiny tasse of rich, perfect espresso), our waiter plonked down a chunky parcel wrapped in plain white paper, a smiley face scribbled atop.  This was our dessert.  No pomp, no circumstance, no....... plate.  Unwrapping the paper revealed a dense rectangle of pale, dense ice cream, a bit minty and nutty with just a hint of the subtly medicinal punch for which the iconic liqueur is famous.  Sandwiched between two thin planks of richly chocolate biscuit, a bit sticky just like old school sammies, it balanced the best components of tradition and novelty.  No frills- just like Kuo intended.

  • 220 Bowery, New York NY 10012
  • Between Prince St. and Spring St.
  • t: (212) 837-2370

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