May 8 (Bloomberg) -- Like Mission Chinese and Empellon Cocina, Pearl & Ash belongs to a growing class of small-plates spots whose carefully crafted food often tastes more expensive than it costs.
These are the restaurants we need in a city that’s given us just the opposite for too long. Naysayers will snipe that Pearl & Ash is just another stripped-down, budget gourmet mess hall. And to an extent, it is.
The blonde rectangle of a room features chairs lacking lumbar support; the music is loud, the crowd louder. Carbs are almost nonexistent and bread costs. The reservations policy is walk-ins mostly, so you call to inquire about the wait. Except no one answers the phone. Ever.
Patience. Pearl & Ash, on New York’s Bowery, is more thoughtful than meets the eye. The dining room stools are generously cushioned and the music (U2, The Cars) is decent. Waits are short and bar tabs are transferred without hassle.
Focaccia-style bread merits the $3 price tag. The slices are soft and gently smoked. What’s that sweet tang in the butter? Maple syrup and chicken fat, says the waiter, who’ll later give you green beans slathered in chili-spiked sea urchin sauce and potatoes fortified with porcini mayo and chorizo. Sorry, vegetarians.
Richard Kuo is the chef. Along with fellow Corton-alum Fredrik Berselius, he wowed us at Williamsburg’s Frej last year. Try Pearl’s food and you’ll know why the chefs were right to part ways. While Berselius likes things deliciously fussy and Scandinavian, Kuo goes for the gut at Pearl with intensely spiced international comfort food.
He coarsely chops raw hanger steak ($9), using it as a savory sponge to deliver the complex heat of harissa, the fat of thickened egg yolk and the brine of olive toast.
Kuo peppers sweet raw scallops with berbere, an Ethiopian spice mixture that packs heat.
Skate, warm and ropy, has a Tunisian twist, a coat of cumin-heavy chermoula. What blackened catfish might taste like, had Marcus Samuelsson invented it.
Spices call for sparkling wine. There are six of them by the glass ($11-$29). Order a bright, bubbly Gatinois Champagne ($21) and a server asks if you prefer a flute or a regular stem, a courtesy I’ve not encountered elsewhere.
Such thoughtfulness comes compliments of beverage director Patrick Cappiello. He’s rightly pushing Bowery diners outside their vodka/soda comfort zones with Leitz Spatlese riesling ($12) and Hidalgo palo cortado sherry ($11). The latter tastes like marzipan. And it is bone dry.
It’s the type of nuttiness that matches well with sweetbreads, fried to resemble chicken nuggets -- until Kuo sprinkles them with musky bits of dried blood sausage. Octopus, the bland white meat of the sea elsewhere, retains its high-tide fishiness at Pearl, with sweet notes of mirin-sriracha here and a puree of sunflower seeds there.
Pearl’s plating policy empowers diners to tailor tasting menus on the fly, as dictated by the size of their hunger and wallets. If such mini meals make you nervous, Pearl will send you double-size dishes.
But supersizing things is missing the point. Doubling ($25) the heady punch of soft lamb belly and lean lamb heart is overdoing it when a $13 portion is exactly right.
Fried quail atop crisped chicken skin is the thinking man’s turducken, a supreme poultry punch for $15.
Mussels and maitake mushrooms, an alliteration of earth and sea, knock you out with the essences of fungi and brine, all tied together by a creamy shellfish broth. Skip the spongy veal cheek ($13) and finish things off with pork meatballs drenched in shiitake sauce and finished with dried bonito.
For dessert? Fernet Branca, normally a Listerine-flavored digestif, is transformed into an herbal ice cream sandwich, a chocolaty after dinner mint for just $6. Go for it.
Rating: ** 1/2
The Bloomberg Questions:
Price: Small plates all $16 or under.
Sound Level: Shouty, over 80 decibels when full.
Date Place: Yes.
Inside Tip: Peas and carrots is the only true vegetarian dish but the kitchen will make substitutions upon request.
Special Feature: Solid skirt steak for $16.
Back on my own dime? You bet, but let’s answer the phones?
Pearl & Ash is at 220 Bowery. Information: +1-212-837-2370 or http://www.pearlandash.com.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor
Sound-Level (in decibels): 51 to 55: Quiet enough to converse. 56 to 60: Speak up. 61 to 65: Lean in if you want to hear your date. 66 to 70: You’re reading one another’s lips. 71 to 75: You’re yelling. 76 to 85: Ear-splitting din.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Tumblr at www.thepricehike.com or www.thebaddeal.com.)
Muse highlights include New York Scene and books.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at firstname.lastname@example.org.