Story and photos by Joel Levin
New Jersey Newspaper Group
Pearl & Ash
220 Bowery (Prince Street/Spring Street)
New York, NY 10012
5:30 PM-midnight, seven days
Pearl & Ash
downtown NYC's remarkable combo of extensive
wine bar/sophisticated tapas haven/scene bar
It's quiet during a rainy evening in lower Manhattan where Nolita meets the Lower East Side, with nothing about the anonymous-looking Bowery storefront winebar/resto to presage the evening's feast. Then something strange and wonderful happens after entering past the glowing sign with the little letters "PEARL & ASH."
Indoors is a feeling that all bad attitudes have been discarded outside.
Not to sound like an old hippie screed, but the vibe is that diners have come to have a good time -- and their expectations have been met. Table talk is not gossip or stock tips. Instead, people at adjacent tables communally compare notes about their dishes and bottles. A soundtrack of four decades of medium-volume music surrounds (including what sounded like the "Best of 1978 Pre-Punk New Wave").
Blond wood dominates. Most of the seating is banquettes, and there is also one family-style table dominated by the restaurant's signature skeletonized ceiling fixture. The walls are built-in shadow boxes displaying vases, old cameras, and other tchotchkes.
Up to three sommeliers lean over tables in geeky interchanges with patrons, while the servers exude the kind of happiness that can't be faked. Seats at the small and humming bar are filled, but glasses are filled almost exclusively with wine, the drinkers ignoring the hard stuff backlighted on the backbar.
Presiding over the fermented-grape-fueled love-in is Pearl & Ash's sparkplug, its inspiration, its godfather, its head cheerleader.
He's front-of-the-house impresario, sommelier, itinerant schmoozer, and a very visible partner, seemingly materializing at many spots in the room at once. Tall, angular, and energized, his black-rimmed specs, tattoos, and rock T-shirt and jeans wardrobe announce that this guy is not your stuffy, tastevin-sporting, somber old-school somm.
Patrick Cappiello, always bright-eyed and rippling and flowing with enthusiasm, is a kid in a candy store. His candy store happens to be at 220 Bowery. And his candy store has a playground which he proudly shows off to curious patrons, a series of chilled cellar rooms that are his 2000-label wine cellar. "I have 2000 babies to look after downstairs," notes somm Cappiello. He clearly states his philosophy: "Keep your mind open and your portfolio full."
Classics meet newcomers
P&A guarantees a fun night out, not only for solid food, but for its diverse (and reasonably priced!) wine list filled with discoveries. These bottlings are the pride and joy of Cappiello who has researched each wine, visited many of the wineries, and boldly mixed outrageous newcomers with go-to classics. If perusing an 80-page wine list is not the way you want to spend valuable drinking time, put yourself in Cappiello's hands and have the wine experience -- omakase-style -- of your life!
There's nothing like absorbing a wine tour of the world from a certified wine nerd. On our first visit, Cappiello started us with a rare bubbly, Céline & Laurent Tripoz Crémant de Bourgogne. It's a lower-priced Champagne-method Burgundian, 100-percent Chardonnay, like a blanc de blanc with tight bubbles, disciplined minerality, huge mouth feel and a kick of lime.
Another night, partner Cappiello suggested the creamy, citrusy Champagne Pierre Moncuit as the opening act. This brut blanc de blanc is prominent in the Champagne region, but it's not found on that many wine lists in New York City, so thanks for the tip, Patrick. I counted 81 (!) Champagnes on the list, with only three of the "big" names represented. Obviously, the list of Champagnes is a labor of love authored by someone with a love for labor, but an informed guide is a must for navigating the pages. Fortunately, a somm is never far away at Pearl & Ash.
A wine we never would have spotted in the big book of wine was from a lesser-known region -- the 2013 "Out of the Blue" Cinsault blend from Clos Saron in California's Sierra foothills. Imagine a bright and juicy red with notes of tart berries and toasted hazelnuts, which finishes with a searing heat on the upper palate. Follow your somm!
P & A doesn't know if it is a tapas place driven by the wines, or an inventive restaurant with a great wine list. I think that in this struggle the wine is ahead on points in the fourth round, but in reality, the glass and the plate coexist in symbiotic/synergistic heaven.
Clever, ambitious, inviting
Chef de cuisine Richard Kuo's clever 18-item menu is ambitious and inviting, with plates priced from $9 to $17. The prices encourage ordering a parade of different tastes, so the check will go beyond luncheonette scale. Your server accommodates sharing, and knows exactly when to whisk away a plate.
Chef Kuo, formerly of Taiwanese and Australian residency, has obviously picked up international influences, and for the most part shuffles them with a fine hand. His classicism has roots in a stint at Corton, but a vital component of his spirit comes from his time with Wylie Dufresne. Menu selections show some hints of WD-50-type molecular gastronomy, but here in the chef's first solo venture, there is no self-conscious weirdness, only brave invention.
All dishes are tapas-size, most large enough for sharing. Some looked pretty, but let us down in the taste department, some were visual turn-offs but brilliant palate-pleasers, and some were tops in both parameters. Nothing bombed.
The minimalist theme extends to the printed menu, with selections identified only by a listing three or four ingredients without a clue to preparation. Well, that's what an educated waitstaff is for.
At its best, Kuo's menu is downright brilliant and fun, but its execution during one of our visits ranged from stellar to careless. On that one night, the fluke crudo was annihilated by a choking of salt, leading us to wonder if the fluke was a plague of salt or if the plague of salt was a fluke.
Was there a salt-gremlin cook in the kitchen, sabotaging each dish by oversalting when no one was looking? It turned out that this was Chef's night off, when we were also shortchanged by being presented with some boring, undecorated, ungarnished dishes. We received assurance that this would not reoccur.
Allow me to interrupt myself here, because it's important for you to know that this is not a slam. In fact, when Kuo was presiding, subsequent plates formed an unbelievable cascade of unexpected taste combinations, sprightly, intriguing, and ingenious.
Some minimalist, some baroque
Most plates were minimalist works, some executed to a fault. Others were carefully-composed baroque pieces of art, but on one occasion, the blackened, herb-crusted octopus, although sweet and tender under its black coat, was a real letdown in appearance. One curly tentacle sat naked on a white plate looking like something from nature, but not looking like something edible. It begged for garnish, perhaps microgreens or an herbal sprig or a dash of something red.
We were told that the crusty creation is one of the restaurant's most popular offerings, one of four carried over from the inaugural menu, so patrons have shown their approval. But are they also displaying bravery by biting into this mystery mollusk? Taste speaks for itself, but the first "taste" is a visual. A rose is a rose is a rose, but a fresh red rose trumps a blackened dead one. Even perfect roses are often presented in a frame of baby's breath. Oh yeah, it was delicious and we loved it.
But start with "hamachi, jicama, ricotta, arugula." Crudo with cheese? Nonna's spinning in her grave, but you'll love this imaginative sweet-tart limey twist on crudo.
The "quail eggs, focaccia, trumpet royale, dandelion greens" handily balanced caramelized housemade focaccia with the bitterness of the greens. "Cod, coconut, Thai basil, lemongrass" featured melt-in-yer-mouth fish dotted with a precious sprinkle of microgreens. As with many of the kitchen's creations, the cod dish startled with its brightness and freshness, but Pearl & Ash is all about unexpected delights.
A guilty indulgence came in the form of "bread, chicken butter, maple syrup." Chicken "butter," you say. Well, I say it's schmaltz, bubbie -- a more refined chicken fat minus my grandma's garlic -- unctuous, pleasing, and spreadable. And how do you milk a chicken, anyway? The bread (which is the only way to order bread at P&A), inoffensively neutral, had too much caraway for our taste, but they were honest caraway seeds. Anyway, the chicken butter was the star.
During our visits, we feasted on 18 different items. so you won't see all of them described here. A few highlights were the garlicky-but-gentle venison sausage, the tender and lightly-smoked trout, the sesame oil-coated "long beans, kale, peanut, bbq sauce" which was balanced perfection, and the scallops and squid plate dressed with kernels of corn.
Despite its relative low-cleverness quotient, the best-executed, most unexpected dish was "potato, porcini mayo, chorizo," comprising perfect cubes of refried frites. We asked the chef how he had transformed this humble classic into a totally unreal treat of concentrated fried potato essence -- "twice-fried?" "No," Kuo responded, three times."
The dessert list is short, but shocking. I liked the mile-high negroni ice cream sandwich which arrives wrapped in crisp paper. For a dessert, though, it was somewhat restrained. I'd like to try it with a Campari reduction spooned over.
The doughnuts, actually spherical donut holes, include a chocolate stout variety and one flavored with blood oranges. Even the cheese platter went beyond. The rich and oozing Delice de Bourgogne was topped with strawberry, while the caramel-y aged goat gouda was accompanied by a pear slice. The Dunbarton blue Cheddar was mated with roasted green pumpkinseeds and salted chocolate.
The desserts begged for sweet wine, so we chose a Late Harvest 2005 Classic Tokaj from Hungary and, from Spain, an '83 Bodegas Albala Grand Reserva Pedro Ximenez. As fans of the PX sherry category, this was an easy choice, but the Albala, thick enough to top pancakes, was an over-the-top gem boasting flavors of raisins and rich molasses
One aspect of the restaurant which make this place special is that every diner is approached by Cappiello or one of two other wine guides with recommendations. Like the servers, they strike the right note with adventurous suggestions appropriate to patrons' cues. With the low-markup policy, it's easy to order two or three bottles. It's even easier to order from the 25-item by-the-glass list, but that means forgoing 2000 additional possibilities.
The tone of Pearl & Ash, despite a few flaws is fun and celebratory, explaining its quick climb to success. The servers seem happy to be there, they're well-educated about the food and wine, and they engage without being obsequious or chirpy. It's rare that all employees of an establishment are conscious of the fact that they are in the hospitality business. We felt welcome, rather than tolerated, which just added to the comfort level.
During our visits, we were never pressured to leave, even with a full house. They were enchanting, fun times, and it was both energizing and relaxing to be in the presence of likeminded enthusiastic customers.
Pearl & Ash is a trip! Take it.
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