By Mark Antonation
By Nathalia Velez
By Jonathan Shikes
By Alex Brown
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Lori Midson
By Mark Antonation
I hated Black Pearl.
I hated it before the place even opened.
I hated the hype, the website, the menu. Even the building -- the old Oodles space getting an expensive makeover to house the new restaurant -- bothered me on some level I couldn't quite grasp: the building just squatting there on South Pearl Street with its patio and under-construction dining room, blond-wood accents and proto-Frisco, California/Asian feel, like it had been lifted whole out of 1987 with the stink of fusion and too much arugula still clinging to it.
1529 S. Pearl St.
Denver, CO 80210
Region: South Denver
Seared tuna: $10
Boring salad: $8
Whole fish: $22
It was a head-shaking kind of hate. I had nothing in particular against the place, but everything in general. With their bicoastal resumés, New American cuisine, high prices and odd neighborhood-restaurant-only-better ambience, owners Steve Whited (who still owns the Summer House on Nantucket, though he's done lots of club work in Denver) and Sean Huggard (formerly of the Summer House as well, and a recent Culinary Institute of America Hyde Park graduate) had managed to play to all my pet peeves before the first plates hit the first table. What's more, they were claiming freshness and locality as their own personal buzzwords while hyping a fish-heavy menu and oyster raw bar.
Last time I checked, the Rocky Mountains are famous for only one kind of oyster -- and it ain't the sort you want to eat raw. And while I understood that Whited and Huggard had rolled into town with plenty of green, it would take more than they could possibly have to make tilapia or sea bass native to Colorado.
Black Pearl's opening last summer did nothing to change my completely uninformed opinion. I read the menus and made a few ghosting passes -- walking by on busy nights, peeking through the glass, watching customers seated on the patio, gathered around the blue and yellow Sterno glow of a fire burning in the middle of the largest stone table. I heard from spies -- field agents who called to tell me about the frazzled service, the overpriced wine, the more overpriced food -- and tucked their reports away.
I made my first run at the place a few months in with a three-top and came away unimpressed. The crowd was a mix of neighbors and foodies, the demographics as squirrelly as those at a Democratic Party fundraising dinner. Our waitress seemed unsure of herself -- not just in terms of the menu and wine, but with what she ought to be doing at any given moment, like an actress who'd incompletely prepared for her part. I ate fish, remembered almost nothing about it five minutes later, and had to ask for my menu back just to see that it'd been halibut.
On my second visit, I sat in the front room alone, drinking a cocktail and toying with an order of fried oysters (of the aquatic, not testicular, variety). I was trying to pass for a local, someone who'd wandered in looking for a respite from whatever it is that Pearl Street neighbors find distracting -- gentrification, maybe, or parking. But Black Pearl felt neither comfortably neighborhoody nor disaffectedly hoity-toity, giving off a liminal vibe, as if the servers in their casual striped button-downs weren't sure how far up they ought to ratchet their noses, and the bartender wasn't certain whether he ought to be proud of his ability to skillfully mix mangoes and gin (or whatever) or slightly ashamed.
The oysters were good, though, served with a red-chile aioli that was well executed, if almost desperately Californian. And the menu -- though punctuated with dishes like those oysters, an "unassembled" clam "chowdah" and an almost knee-jerk truffled mac-and-cheese that all seemed like pointlessly derivative, trend-humping examples of precisely the sort of culinary smart-assitude that makes New American food so laughably stupid -- was at least interesting. Still, it seemed calibrated high and fast, like comfort food for those who recycle trends too quickly, a culinary version of VH1's I Love the '00s. That was maybe understandable, since Huggard is all of 24 years old, but I filed that away, too, and walked out knowing just one thing: I still didn't like the place. Hate was maybe too strong a word now, but I was unsure of the right ones.
Last week, after having the great meal that Black Pearl is capable of producing when at its best and most basic, I finally found them: This can be a great restaurant under the right circumstances. Come in the right mood, on the right night, be seated at the right table at the right time, when all the stars are aligned, and a meal here is worth every nickel. Do this and you will be transported -- to 1987 or somewhere even better -- but miss your window by just a little, and everything falls apart. On my previous tries, I learned, I'd simply done things wrong.
Timing, company and appetite made all the difference. Mostly appetite. Because I've cooked and eaten my way through the advent, height and current perversion of that weird stepchild cuisine called New American, I sometimes find myself craving it. A cuisine that mixes classical French (like Black Pearl's moules et frites in Pernod broth) with mac-and-cheese, and ethnic fusions with overworked standards, like the tuna app or the steak, is comforting to me because -- like country French to a Parisian or peanut butter and jelly to a latchkey child of the suburbs -- New American is what I knew as I came up through the industry. I can remember a hundred gimpy, thumb-fisted, occasionally brilliant menus like Black Pearl's passing through my hands over the past decade. And though New American can be a nightmare when done poorly, there are rare kitchens and crews that can take these worn-out ideas and execute them with a fresh grace.