Pearl & Ash
Pearl & Ash, on the Bowery, is another unassuming downtown restaurant that delivers more than it promises. The small plates are designed for communal consumption, the way Dufresne’s are, and the proprietors bill their restaurant as a progressive wine bar. There aren’t many wine bars around town, however, that offer dabs of melting, gourmet-quality hanger-steak tartare (served with melba toast speckled with dehydrated olives) to go with your glass of Damien Coquelet 2011 Burgundy. Not to mention house-baked bread served with an ethereal substance called “chicken butter” (fresh-churned butter and chicken fat), or delicate helpings of diver scallops (strewn with fennel and lily bulbs) so expertly prepared that a chef at my table put down his fork and declared, “If they served this at Le Bernardin, people would go insane.”
The architect of these unexpected treats is Richard Kuo, who was a partner, most recently, at the well-reviewed Brooklyn pop-up Frej. Spare, Scandinavian forager cuisine was the theme at Frej, but Kuo’s cooking here is exuberantly all over the map. My smoky portion of grilled skate was blackened with cumin-rich Moroccan spices, and the soft, crunchy-skinned octopus is rolled in Sriracha-laced togarashi powder from Japan and garnished with fresh shiso. I wasn’t wild about the gooey streak of uni in the Thai long beans, but dishes like the lamb belly (candy-soft, with a kohlrabi purée) and the deboned fried quail are worth a special trip. You can’t say the same about the two, pro forma desserts, unless you happened to be a fan of the medicinal Italian digestif Fernet-Branca, which the chefs use to create a boozy ice-cream sandwich.