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.