Pearl Oyster Bar - 18 Cornelia St., West Village
Fried oysters, Jumbo lump crabcake, Lobster roll, a B.B. Burgerbrau pilsner
I dream about few places in the U.S. as ardently as Maine. I’ve been there three times, twice with my parents on vacation and once with my friends as the last leg of a road trip. The beauty of the state’s vast greenness stayed with me and the more laidback approach to life is something I could use right about now. The lakes all seem lifted from postcards and the towns I’ve visited are quaint wonders, filled with little galleries and specialized museums.
But of course, it’s the food that left the deepest mark. The quality of seafood is undeniably fresh, with hefty, hard-shelled lobsters and sweet oyster bellies just pulled to shore that morning. I’ve yet to have a bad clam chowder up there, each one crammed with an embarrassment of rich mollusk meat. I’ve also had my share of excellent scallops there. Still dreaming of drawn butter, I’ve long meant to get back up the coast to don my lobster bib again. But too busy to take another vacation, I decided to do the next best thing and revisit Manhattan’s answer to Maine, Pearl Oyster Bar.
My friend Brian and I smartly got there at six-thirty, beating the crowds at the popular and cramped restaurant. We took two seats at the bar and kicked off the relaxing night with a German pilsner. Leaving work early and savoring a beer is easily one of life’s undisputed joys, and it was no different here. But once our appetizers arrived, it was obvious that I was in for more than just a placid Wednesday. I'd also be enjoying another deliriously good meal.
Splitting the jumbo lump crabcake that won me over last time (see Dinner, Mar. 12) and the fried oysters I was so eager to compare to Black Pearl’s (see Jul. 4) was an ideal way to go. The crabcake, blissfully overloaded with chunks of tender crab, was even better than I’d remembered. Brian said it took a minute to really appreciate it, because he was so used to eating crabcakes that substituted breading for seafood. (I didn’t care for the coleslaw, so I just ignored it.) As for the fried oysters, it was no contest whatsoever. While Black Pearl’s are certainly good, Pearl Oyster’s may be the best I’ve ever tried. Sweet and meaty, they came lightly fried in shells of tartar sauce. The fried exterior, instead of burying the oyster’s flavor, only added another excellent contrasting texture.
Next, Brian and I and about three-quarters of the restaurant opted for the lobster roll, Pearl’s deservedly signature dish. I’ve already written about my love for this dish, based only on my small sample of it from my last visit. This time, I had the entire roll to judge it, and the results were just as transcendent. The delicious pieces of lobster are on full display, but complemented by a light sauce of mostly mayo but also finely chopped celery, pepper and Kosher salt. With the grilled hot dog bun and a hill of crispy shoestring fries, this dish earns the relentless praises it receives.
Throughout my meal, eating at Pearl Oyster Bar only made me more eager to return to Maine. I longed to trade the traffic for the greenery, I wanted another taste of sleepy shacks frequented by a roster of regulars. I looked forward to swimming in pristine water in the summer and seeing small towns still digging their way out of monumental snowfalls in the winter. Those were all things I couldn’t get in the city. But for the first time, I wondered if maybe the lobster at Pearl was just as good as or even better than Portland's or Bar Harbour's. 9/10
* E-Gullet's Steven Shaw profiles chef Rebecca Charles for Elle magazine and includes her recipe for the lobster roll
* Chowhounds offer lobster roll alternatives to Pearl and Mary's Fish Camp
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