Despite a menu that feels more formulaic than fantastic, Pearl & Ash is still a showcase for many of chef Richard Kuo’s technical talents. With a wine list longer and more affordable than most in the city, everyone from friends in a big group to couples on an early, intimate dinner date can find at least one thing they like about the restaurant.
There is something to be said for identifying a winning formula with empirical evidence of success and just running with it. After all, that’s what so many great businesses are founded on. I once worked for a company of public space redevelopment consultants that dramatically reinvigorated parks and open spaces across the country using the simple practices the firm first developed at Bryant Park in New York. Yet there is a difference between applying the Bryant Park method of vibrant placemaking to public spaces in other cities and applying the same compositional formula to an entire meal. And at Pearl & Ash, while the formula is clear, its uniform execution across the menu has resulted in a do-it-yourself tasting menu that is at times wearisome and difficult to finish.
One of my most knowledgable food and wine friends and I were just two dishes into our meal when we first noticed this jarring sense of repetition in flavor and texture. Because the menu is organized into six categories (Raw, Small, Fish, Meat, Vegetables, Sugar) of small plates designed for sharing (an unbearable phrase whose syntax I won’t spend time critiquing yet), we had three squeezed onto our table all at once. Besides making us feel like we were being rushed out of our table just moments after we had sat down and causing us to fear that one of our dishes would run cold if we did not finish it with lightspeed fervor, the arrangement of plates let us realize just how similar each dish actually was.
The raw salmon with asparagus and a thick, creamy hollaindaise sauce so closely mirrored the flavor and texture profile of the hamachi with crunchy jicama and a rich, creamy swath of ricotta that we couldn’t appreciate either dish for itself. There was a heavy hand that applied these creamy elements, too, and the delicate flavor of the lovely pieces of hamachi became almost unintelligible.
The octopus, probably the most popular plate on the menu, also sits on an off-putting amount of thick sunflower seed puree. The octopus itself, however, covered with a crunchy and spicy flash seared togarashi powder is perfectly tender.
It’s regrettable then, that nearly every dish on the menu can be broken down like this into a feature protein or vegetable, a bit of crunch, and a thick, creamy, sauce-like component, because there is a lot of strength in many of the precise flavor combinations of these high-qualtiy ingredients. But taken together, the wow-factor is muddled, and the menu feels of a formulaic attitude with too little creativity.
This sensation made the dry pork meatballs with shiitake, bonito, and soppressata and the potatoes with an overwhelming dose of mayo with barely detectable porcini mushrooms and just a sparse speckle of chorizo less than enjoyable to finish. The meaty bavette, another favorite on the menu, can also be found on top of a cauliflower puree that too closely imitates the puree that rests under the octopus. The meal of small dishes put together by the diner then ends with a sigh of relief rather than a wistful longing for more.
What I haven’t discussed yet is the wine, which is Pearl & Ash’s strongest, and most progressive feature. In order to truly enjoy the restaurant in the future, one’s best bet is to take time exploring the never-ending and phenomenally well-priced wine list, enjoy a bottle or two with a date, and perhaps nibble on a plate here and there when hunger strikes. In this way, Pearl & Ash will feel a little less like the tired result of a systematic approach to cooking and more like the brilliant, forward-thinking restaurant and bar it tries to be.