A Year In Food

From New York to Costa Rica to Europe to California: 365 Days of Dining Out

Monday, July 04, 2005

Jul. 4.

Lunch -

Black Pearl - 14 Ave. A, East Village
Ipswich fried clams, Lobster roll, two Killian's

In the city, where real estate is a religion, restaurateurs have to get creative just to get a space. One of the strangest examples of this I’ve seen is the recent opening of Black Pearl, which occupies the back of a dive bar named Julep. I’d been to Julep, a no-pretense dive bar complete with pool table and glowing Bud Light sign, a few times before and the idea of running a restaurant in there seemed like a real challenge. But when I learned the items in questions were clams, oysters and lobster, I started to reconsider. From my experiences of eating in Maine, where the goal is to keep it as casual as possible, a lobster shack could actually be the perfect fit for Julep’s laidback demeanor.

At four o’clock, I took a seat at the still mostly deserted bar and checked out the menu. I was surprised by its ambitious breadth (haddock ceviche, mussels bangkok, and organic mesclun salad), but its stars were still the standards. Like nearly everyone else I observed during my meal, I stuck to Black Pearl’s two most-praised dishes, the fried clams and the lobster roll. And because a waitress was nowhere in sight, I just walked up to the back window, where chefs were garnishing appetizers, and ordered there.

Back at the bar, I got a Killian’s on draft (a big reason why I love coming to Julep) and chatted with the very friendly bartender. She was charming and easygoing, and talking to her instantly lightened my mood. The steady flow of classic hits playing did the trick too. Then my plates arrived and I was thankful that all I’d had that day was a yogurt. Or as the bartender put it, “Wow, that’s a mountain of food.” In addition to tower of clams and the bun-sized roll, each one came with fries, a pickle, peppered cole slaw and lettuce. Naturally, I proved up to the Kobayashi-sized task.

As I began to eat, everything fell into place. “Moondance” came on the jukebox, my fingers started tapping the buoyant rhythm on the rim of my beautifully red beer glass, a woman three seats down asked me how my fried clams were, I told her they were great and bridged the space between us at the bar to give her a sample. The mood was festive and the seafood was fresh. It seemed like the perfect way to kick off a celebration for the Fourth of July.

And indeed, the Ipswich clam bellies were pretty terrific. Faithfully evoking New England in the summer, they had a sweetness and a meatiness that testified this was the real deal. I also liked the thin and crunchy fries, which seemed to disappear from my plates even though I had so many. The lobster roll, Black Pearl’s biggest seller by far, was also quite good, with lots of unadulterated claw and tail meat stuffed in a grilled hot dog bun. Still, comparing the roll to Pearl Oyster Bar’s, I had to prefer the latter. Black Pearl’s preparation was so basic that it verged on nonexistent. I couldn’t detect any butter or mayo or even any sign of a vegetable – three things I’m ordinarily not a big fan of, but after tasting the revelatory possibilities of Pearl Oyster Bar’s, this lobster roll lacked in comparison.

More woefully lacking though, and what really ended up hurting my meal, was the service. As great and attentive as my bartender was, she couldn’t help me, because Julep and Black Pearl are two separate businesses. Thus, it was up to the two lost-looking waitresses (one of whom had just started the hour I arrived) to look after a clientele growing in waves every fifteen minutes. My seat at the bar may have invited some neglect, but the staff was so overextended and unprepared that it seemed to make little difference. After getting my food and watching the waitress run off and not return, I had to hunt down my own bottle of ketchup. I waited and waited for my plates to be cleared, even after it was quite apparent I was finished. I waited even longer for my check and then finally gave up waiting to pay by getting up to flag down a waitress. If that was the scene at ten to five, I can only imagine the chaos at eight.

I can only hope that the staff becomes more efficient or that Black Pearl moves into its own space, where there can be a centralized dining area and there won’t be any confusion between bargoers and diners. Still, the food is certainly notable and when I didn’t have to deal with ordering or paying, I had a very fun experience. It would’ve been even better if I’d arrived an hour later to take advantage of Julep’s Happy Hour from five to eight. With the lure of two-for-one drink specials, I could’ve looked past the faults of a restaurant inhabiting a bar. But I can't help thinking, if I'd just had a little more magic with my lobster roll and a lot better service, Black Pearl really could've set off fireworks. 7/10

Gothamist's Review of Black Pearl from June 2005
Nina Lalli's roundup of New York City lobster rolls from The Village Voice


Blogger selfish girls stay skinny said...

Let me just say I'm addicted to your adventures and I admit eating vicariously through your posts. As my sister lives in NYC, I frequently take trips there and can relate to some of your experiences. Oh, and if you ever are in the mood for copious amounts of food regardless of quality, there is a very good sushi/seafood/buffet place called Minado in Koreatown.

12:26 PM  
Anonymous chef 'em out said...

Very good review.

7:13 AM  
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1:43 PM  

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