So I’m stuffing my face full of New York when I am suddenly put on notice. One of my good friends in culinary consumption just so happens to be roaming the very same streets and in roughly the same neighborhood. Yup … Eat, Drink, Man was in town too.
Out came the droid, soon followed by the ratatat of key mashing and some subsequent phone chatter. Words haphazardly flew about until we came to an agreement. We would meet on the morrow in an attempt to best each other on the battle field (Pearl Oyster Bar). I am Jack’s beating heart.
Something odd happens when I sit down in a restaurant that is epically famous but not very old (as is the case with Pearl Oyster Bar). One might expect me to have some sort of intense emotional rush or at least a moment to myself. Truth be told, in both of my trips to Pearl, I’ve found the place so approachable that it almost slips into the annals of my mind not long after I leave. In other words, Pearl is just so comfortable that you can easily forget you are in one of the holiest of holies and it’s against this setting that I, dare I saw we, consumed one of the best lobster rolls you’ll find anywhere.
Opened in 1997 by Rebecca Charles, a book of Pearl’s press clippings is already tantamount to an encyclopedic volume. And though Charles has already expanded into the adjoining space, the restaurant isn’t more than a small dining room, a marble countertop, and a bar. Inspired by Swan Oyster Depot, the brick exposure with Colonial Revival accents make Pearl cool cuz she doesn’t try too hard. Plenty of window acreage makes the dining room glow during the hot New York summer and what better way to escape the heat than with some cold seafood and a frosty brew?
It is at the marble counter that Gene and I found our home. Unlike ACME Oyster bar in New Orleans, there is no giant open tub of ice on display. Shucking takes place in the back and this lends itself more to a conversation than the showmanship you might find at other restaurants in the city.
The menu, heavy on the chilled shellfish, is, I’d say, 90% New England beach food and 10% “with a twist.” During my previous rendezvous, I spent time slurping through vats of oysters, steamers, shrimp cocktails, and the like. Suffice it to say, Pearl is one of those places I could set up shop in and eat my way through without another care in the world. However, time was of the essence and stomach space was at a premium. So That’s what happens when you plan three stops for lunch and two for dinner!
After coaxing Lee, we settled in with an order of New England steamers and a pair of lobster rolls. We caught up, discussed Gene’s planned attendance at a nearby Friendly, and some of the others happenings in our lives.
Soon we were presented with a pile of beautifully executed steamers. Now steamers are not simply any steamed clam. Despite that misnomer, they are in fact soft-shell calms popularized by and accessible to even the most novice of clam diggers. But just because they are accessible does not mean that simply throwing them in a caldron of boiling water will cut it. Soft-shelled clams, which live in tidal mudflats, must be soaked in saltwater for a few days in order to have them properly cleansed. Then, in order to turn them into steamers, the chef must incorporate right the right balance of wine, butter, garlic, and the like.
Pearl’s steamers are gorgeous and I am Jack’s inner child. They were so clean and sweet that I found myself pulling them straight from their shells and depositing them in my mouth without so much as a bother for the adjunct clam broth (used for additional cleansing) and butter (used for sweetening). Truth be told, the butter remained stationed in its tin chalice for the entirety of the meal.
As good as anything I’ve ever had in Ipswich or Essex, these steamers were plump, meaty, and captured my full attention.
As we approached the tail end of the bucket, my delight was interrupted by the arrival of our rolls. Almost immediately my excitement turned to befuddlement. I was like one of those kids who’s got two hands full of dessert and is eyeing a piece of cake. A wiser man would have held onto the handful of steamers and face planted directly into the plate of French fries and lobster, but I came to my senses and appealed to those manners emblazoned in my memory all those years ago. Seriously folks, though I might come of like a crash, completely unpolished weenie tot, Peggy really did make a dent with yours truly.
When Pearl’s Oyster Bar opened back in the day, there was no other lobster roll in New York. Since then, Mary’s Fish Camp (run by former Pearl’s associate Mary Redding) has given some depth to the debate of “best lobster roll in NYC.” I would think that jurisprudence would result in more people entrenched on the Pearl’s side of the debate, but truth be told, I do go back and forth a bit.
As for the roll itself, it was eye-candy yet again. Simply plated, there was a little bit of treasure hunting as I went through a few layers of tasty shoestrings to fully reveal what lay beneath. The New England styled split-side bun was overflowing with a sizeable … nay … let’s say gargantuan chunks of lobster oozing salty, mayonnaise-y deliciousness amidst a buttery toasted bun that screamed out for help. Holding up that much lobster must have been a pain in the arse.
Realizing at this point that the aforementioned interpretation was firmly in place before I had even bite one, I immediately ignored the aforementioned manners of Ms. Peggy and went hand over fist for my plate. You could probably get away with using a fork and knife, as practical sensibilities insist upon it, but please … for the love of god … don’t be that guy! Lobster rolls are made to be messy and Pearl’s is no exception. The coolness of the meat and the warmth of the underlying bread was perfect. I am Jack’s Happy Place.
Lobster rolls are made of boat shoes and polos. They aren’t for the feint of heart either. Even in the high priced metropolis of New York City, a $28 sandwich is going to dent a lot of wallets. But put your diet on the back burner and use credit if need be, cuz this baby is the tits. I am Jack’s perverted id.
Mind you this recapitulation should be taken into context. I’ve never been during dinner (where the wait can get intense) and I’m pretty sure I’d wait for a bar seat before a table. I have no idea what service or a wait is actually like at this place. Frankly, I don’t care … Pearl Oyster Bar is a must.
Me writing on a place like Pearl is kinda like a two-year old critiquing Picasso. I’m just lucky to be in the door. Be that as it may, I’ve certainly had some disappointing experiences at more than one titan of cuisine. I have yet to see anything other than brilliance in simplicity from the gang at Pearl Oyster Bar.