Cafe Society

Another Kind of Comfort

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.

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.

It's a different kind of comfort, a romp through the culinary history of five minutes ago, but it's one I understand. A hunger for something very specifically New American -- that was the first requirement for enjoying Black Pearl.

Second, the company. I was dining alone, and I like myself just fine. Which isn't to say you can't have a good meal here with friends -- just that, for me, the food takes more concentration than I can spare when trying (and failing) to be charming for a crowd.

Third, the timing. I showed up early, when the dining rooms were almost empty. And though a slow trickle of deuces and fours continued to make their way in throughout my meal, each table had an almost dedicated server.

Mine was excellent, immediately swinging into a casual discussion of wines, specials and the food in general. He was relaxed, competent, free with his opinions on everything. I asked for something easy, sweet, fruity and red to drink, and he came up with an Aussie GSM blend, then seemed unfazed by my early decision to follow it with a white -- a Spanish Albariño -- and even brought me a tasting glass just so I'd have something to look forward to. I told him I'd be ordering in flights, and he was cool with that, too, pointing out favored apps and small plates, salads, entrees.

I began with the seared-tuna small plate (indispensable workhorse of the New American milieu) served with a citric aioli (basic kitchen chemistry), a brunoise garni (knife skills) and Spanish sausage (that necessary element of ethnic fusion). It was a single plate so indicative of everything a New American menu requires that I figured it could serve as benchmark, and it did. The tuna was sliced from a small loin, seared brown on the surface with a half-inch of gray fading into raw flesh. Perfect. This was fanned, topped with a restrained smear of preserved lemon aioli -- not too tart, not too sweet -- and topped again with an admirable brunoise most notable for the way it tasted of nothing in particular yet matched the tuna at every bite, stiff for soft and salty for sweet. The Spanish sausage had been butterflied and grilled, mounted like a swallow's tail off to the edge of the plate, one end sunk into a small pile of soft, translucent fennel slices to complete the presentation.

It was all wonderful, handled with a precision that spoke of the absolute control required to make New American work as anything more than a gag or a gimmick. When a restaurant features something like a "boring salad" of iceberg, buttermilk, hard egg and bacon (which Black Pearl does), the crew has to make damned sure that salad is anything but boring, lest the joke get turned back on them. And when a menu offers anything -- and I mean anything -- deconstructed, there'd better be a good reason for it, because deconstruction done just for the sake of being able to, for the dubious modernist cachet that comes from the inclusion of such a ridiculously egotistical presentation, is geekish in the worst possible way.

But Black Pearl had a reason with the chowdah: the opportunity to present, on one side, a wonderfully rich and creamy soup dotted with just a couple slivers of chive and a couple tiny nuggets of bacon, and on the other, a small pot of clams steamed in a smartly restrained beurre blanc and served in the shell, in the broth. In the process, the kitchen took the best part of clam chowder -- the clams -- and elevated them with a cooking method more suitable than milk poaching while also constructing an excellent cream soup not overly freighted with the brine of clam juice.

This is a popular dish at Black Pearl. It's been on Huggard's menu from the start -- a stable point of personality on an ever-shifting board. But for all its novelty, it is neither gimmick nor gag. It's just good food, which is probably the highest compliment I can give to something following the path of such idiotic culinary post-modernism as plates of candied bacon hanging from swings and pictures of food printed on flavored, edible paper. I'm a Luddite and a classicist at heart, but Black Pearl won me over with the unassembled chowder simply because it was delicious and well thought through by someone obviously a lot smarter than me.

My server cleared the table and we hunkered down to discuss the next round. We spoke of crab-crusted tilapia with dandelion salad, crabcakes, the lamb, the gnocchi presented in an un-gnocchi-like fashion as potato profiteroles -- then settled on the whole fish, fried and splashed in lemongrass barbecue sauce, which my server said was not as good as the tilapia, but an excellent fall-back nonetheless. I switched up the wine as well, agreeing with his assessment that the Albariño had notes of grapefruit rind that might not play well with the lemongrass. A single flute of Prosecco would do fine in its stead.

The fish was black bass, that night's not-so-local catch du jour, and it arrived slightly overdone, with the head and backfin meat almost too crisp to eat. But the skin was delicious and the center filet tender and crunchy with pin bones. The sautéed spinach on the side was all bacon-jacked and garlicky, a soul-food standard done with such cool confidence that it didn't occur to me until a couple of days later how out of place it was beside an essentially Chinese entree.

Black Pearl is a place best approached when you're hungry for precision flavors and discursive, academic combinations -- not a steak, not a cheeseburger, certainly not clam chowder, but maybe the essence of clam chowder, a beef digression. It's a place that takes time to love, that requires a yen for a different kind of comfort.

I finished with a cheese course -- a Dutch gouda, chopped from the block with both rind and label intact, but served with a blob of gritty eucalyptus honey that was amazing -- and dessert, forgoing the pot de crème and housemade milk and cookies with white-chocolate martini in favor of old-fashioned comfort: gingerbread pudding. The pudding was warm, subtly sweet and gingery, everything it should have been, but now I was disappointed that the kitchen hadn't cut loose just this once and gotten crazy with the dish. It wasn't that I didn't like it; I just wanted more.

Which, all things considered, is a good way for any restaurant to leave a customer: wanting more.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan

Latest Stories