A Glossy New Spot Near Brewer’s Hill Proves to Be Cultured, But Still Rough
Pearls has just opened, within blinking distance of that new neon Mr. Boh, the beacon of Brewer’s Hill, the latest who-even-knew neighborhood all of us have just missed the chance of investing in. Someday, you may tell your children about how you used to come down here and hang out at Pearls when there was nothing else around but industrial flatlands. It sits on the corner of a strip mall called Canton Crossing, but it makes nonetheless a good first impression. Holiday lights twinkle; a giant martini glass perches over the entrance.
Pearls put me in mind of restaurants I’ve been to in other cities. It’s WASP-glitzy, like places that stretch along Manhattan’s Upper East Side, a place where Regis Philbin might have a special table. A “pearl” theme carries out smartly in the multisized white lights, and smoked glass separates the jazzy bar from the dining room, where tables are set with crisp white tablecloths and black napkins. And of course there’s an open kitchen.
There’s something good-naturedly earnest, even goofy, about Pearls. Our server was enthusiastic to the point of appearing to have been brainwashed, and an owner’s note, inserted in the menu, bespoke unabashed pleasure in presenting for the public an establishment that incorporated both a dining room and a bar (and an open kitchen!).
If only it didn’t seem so effortful, or if only the food were better, or if that goofiness didn’t trickle down to the menu preparations—two appetizers (make that “small plates”) showed up in oversized martini glasses. One of them, a small plate of oysters ($7), deserves better treatment; this is now my favorite oyster appetizer in town. Dusted with semolina and tossed in a Pernod sauce with crispy pancetta (Italian bacon) and wilted spinach, this was a silky, mouth-pleasing blend of gently contrasting flavors and textures. I noticed that Pearls’ lunch menu offers a sandwich with those oysters in a rémoulade sauce—I’m interested. In fact, the lunch menu, which includes burgers, pâté sandwiches, panini, wraps, and steak frites, might be a wise entry point for Pearls—dinner’s pricey.
The other cocktail-glass opener was a toss of grilled homemade merguez sausage (often stuffed, at least partly, with lamb, but not here), roasted red peppers, and marsala sauce. Merguez, from North Africa, is new to me, and I’m always happy to put a new sausage in my mouth, but the sweet marsala sauce overwhelmed whatever intrinsic flavors the sausage had to offer. I would have left those sausages alone or tossed them with some seasoned lentils. The crab and roasted corn chowder ($6) was all good—lumps of crabmeat silked into a toothsome potato- and carrot-laden steaming hot brew.
It was the entrées that brought out the fault-finding. Maybe our server overenthused, but we were prepared for many wow moments and received few. A fruit de mer ($24) placed fresh seafood, shrimp, scallops, mussels, clams, calamari, and homemade capellini in just the right amount of Provençal sauce, but the sauce was crying for some capers, some pepper, anything zestful. Drop-dead gorgeous food-stylist crab cakes ($24) looked like champions. All of that glistening lump meat held together magically, bordered by a savvy mustard seed and cornichon tartare. But the cakes were bland. It’s a good idea to let crabmeat speak for itself, but, really, some seasoning is needed to coax out that mild flavor. A New York strip ($26), pan-roasted with red peppers, was cooked, as asked, to a rare, beautiful finish, but none of us took to the cabernet demi-glace, which lent a sweetness none of us wanted. Accompanying red-bliss potatoes were seriously undercooked.
Pearls is new, yes, and polish will surely come. But even though the flaws here are generally more superficial than serious, I find myself not very invested in keeping up with Pearls’ progress. If it can burnish its lack of coherence, its overly high prices, its middlebrow vibe, then it might merit a return trip, someday.