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.