Looking across Pearl's geometric depth at Rick Muto's beautiful Rothko knock-off was like inhabiting a Kubrick film. Kubrick was, George Grella informs us, a true "auteur," an artist with a singular, persistent vision. Pearl, the latest venture from Tonic owners Phil and Charlie Fitzsimmons, also exhibits a clarity of purpose, approach, and execution. Open a month, Pearl is doing a roaring business.
On my first trip, an ordering mix-up brought tuna tartare instead of steak tartare. Our waiter shot back, "Well then, you'll have steak tartare next." Tuna, avocado, and cucumber formed a tower, with crispy wontons on the side and wasabi caviar that sent it into orbit ($10). The tuna was more interesting than the steak, which was nonetheless beautiful ($11). Fine, raw beef is lovely, and that deep red was flanked by small piles of cilantro, basil, mint, red onion, and cooked egg yolk. I missed the zip the traditional capers bring, though.
Deciding amongst the small plates was a challenge. Crispy scallop-sweet potato cakes were not, in fact, "cakes," but included plenty of small, sweet scallops. Their tenderness combined with crisp sweet potato and greens in a textural wonderland ($10). Seared beef with vegetable tempura was a mixed bag ($10). The beef was unspeakably flavorful, and buttery-raw in the middle. But the tempura batter was thick, a bit oily, and didn't work well with a fairly viscous dipping sauce.
The crispy squid is some of the best in town, tender with a crisp and light coating, and accompanied by a spicy-sweet scallion dipping sauce that is at once interesting and complementary. It's also an outstanding value, with scads of squid for $9. The crab cakes aren't your father's fried blobs, but rather an assembly of real crabmeat, served with parsnip chips, watercress, and ginger ($11). Plantain-crusted shrimp came with mangoes inside a wild, fried-plantain cup ($12).
The soul of Pearl is chef Dan Eaton, one of our finest homegrown cooks. Eaton grew up on a dairy farm, and brings a fondness for things of the soil, particularly root vegetables. From his years at Rooney's comes a Pacific-rim orientation gleaned largely from a Vietnamese sous-chef. But background doesn't convey feel. This is a man who loses sleep dreaming up new dishes. And though technically "chef de cuisine," Eaton is truly cooking back there.
Seared Arctic char with red flannel hash, scallion-rolled goat cheese, and wasabi vinaigrette was remarkably balanced ($23). Red flannel hash is a New England specialty Eaton makes with potatoes, parsnip, turnip, onion, and garlic, with roasted beets added last. The combination of beets and goat cheese is a winner. Char is like a more delicate salmon, and hosts all those flavors perfectly.
Wild striped bass isn't for the timid. It's a strong fish, not at all like Chilean sea bass. It comes on a gingered carrot-parsnip purée (!) and Chinese greens, with crispy shallots on top. Pearl is attempting to broaden the local palate, a noble mission. On the other hand, there is a great New York strip steak, which will be cooked perfectly ($29). To keep it a bit interesting, the fries are yucca, and it also comes with mustard greens and chili oil.
Asian-spiced rack of lamb was simply the best lamb dish I've ever had. Lamb should be rich, but not gamy; it should not be tough; this passed with flying colors, and the portion was generous ($28). The combination of cider-macerated cranberries, kale, and crisp leeks was so good that I carefully composed each bite to include a bit of each.
Throughout each meal, we just couldn't wait for what would come next. The desserts were good enough (coffee crème brûlée, mango pastry, and soft chocolate cake), but honestly, when the savory portion of a meal is exceptional, I don't care that much about dessert. The service was excellent, but casual and real, not too "fine restaurant" (Rio, Max, Rooney's), and without a disconcertingly good-looking wait staff (2Vine).
Quibbles? The coffee, as always, should be better than it is. There is a surfeit of wines and liquor, but a paucity of non-alcoholic drinks. And if you're a vegetarian, you're largely out of luck. A tea-drinker might be disappointed by the lack of herbal choices, and tea water should not come lukewarm in an open cup.
Customers from across the street at Veneto won't be enticed. With appetizers from $9 to $16, and dinners as high as $32, Pearl ain't cheap (lunches are $8 to $15). This cuisine is lost on some. My feeling is that the prices set the quality bar high, but when the food clears that bar, it's a sublime experience. I had two such nights at Pearl, and despite the fact that I can't afford to eat there, I will.
Pearl, 349 East Avenue, 325-5660. Hours: lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner, Monday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.; late-night menu, Wednesday through Saturday, 10 p.m. to 1 a.m.