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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Pearl Dive Oyster Palace

Plaudits: None
Neighborhood: 14th Street, Logan Circle

The Setup

After literally walking by it hundreds of times, each time with the same, "we totally need to eat there soon," Official Girlfriend of DCWD Texas and I finally set a time to actually attempt getting a seat at 14th Street's new "it" restaurant: Pearl Dive Oyster Palace.

The Vibe

Pearl Dive is immediately visible from the street, as its front window rolls up like a garage door, giving the impression that the bar is literally overflowing onto the sidewalk. This might not be far from the truth: with a prime location in the ongoing 14th St revitalization and with the benefit of Jeff Black’s sterling pedigree, the restaurant seems perpetually packed. This is mitigated somewhat by Blackjack, the twin bar upstairs (though one that is sadly closed on Monday nights, which this was) and the restaurant’s deli counter ticket system for tables. This is perhaps the coolest innovation of the whole restaurant: it’s alternately informative, telling you exactly how many parties stand between you and a seat, and maddening, as it only amps up the haughty “why are you lingering looks” that flow one-directionally from the bar area to the tables. The counter even disaggregates by twos and fours. The space itself also seemingly keeps the wait in control; the small bar area in the restaurant fills up quickly, which actively discourages stand-and-waiters.

The restaurant’s décor wonderfully mimics a seaside warehouse without becoming perhaps too cartoonish (see: Box, Tackle, the original), albeit with one rather large anchor and chain hanging from the ceiling of the bar (I’ll forgive it). White and beech-colored wood and plaster chip to reveal exposed brick, fading the cleaned-up bar area into a sort of distressed post-factory dining area. The space is softly lit, though with more of a beige ambience than the orange captured in the picture at left. The only main obstacle to it being a great date space is the organization of the dining area, with tables organized in the sort of cluttered way that makes you think they just wanted to cram as many seats into the space as possible. Pathways between tables are model-thin, and the two-tops are more on-top-of-each-other than perhaps anywhere else in the city. Strangely too, some tables are given white tablecloths, while others are left bare. If you’re lucky, you’ll get seated at one of the booths that line the two sides, like we did on this night.

The Food

As a matter of course, Texas and I ordered not only a plate of six off-the-board oysters, but also one of Pearl Dive’s many cooked oyster options. Quite impressively, the restaurant offers not only the traditional mignonette, but three other diverse sauce options, of which our server was gracious enough to let us sample all of them. The oysters (Kummo, CA; Skookum, MA; and Chincoteague, VA) were nice and clean, and finished well with the yuzu-mirin sauce (hands down our favorite).

For oysters, part two, we opted for the grilled east coast oysters, topped with garlic, red chile, creamery butter, and gremolata. I’ll say this: if you haven’t ever had an oyster, or you just like the pure slimy and sumptuous simplicity of a plain oyster, then go with the individuals. But if you’re indifferent or looking for adventure, I can’t imagine anything better than these options. Of course, I only had one, but even this relatively easy preparation trumped everything other cooked oyster I’ve ever had (I’m looking at you guys, Marvin, America Eats, Bayou, etc.). Took nothing off the table when it came to the joys of oysters, but gave it a smokiness and piquant that was lovely.

For our main courses, Texas ordered a crawfish etouffee, served with rice and garlic bread. This was a slight down note on the night, as the crawfish flavor sort of dominated everything else, and didn't let the other seafood or rice or even the spice kick through as much as either of us wanted. A little bit more balance and this would have been real good.

On the other hand, I decided to complete my night of oyster overkill by ordering the genuinely interesting braised duck and oyster gumbo. This was awesome for any number of reasons: the savory and rich duck, the surprise every-so-often of a sumptuous oyster, wonderful Southern flavors, and just enough kick to keep it interesting. Unlike the etouffee, this had a wonderful balance, with feelings of warmth and salt and a lovely depth.

The Verdict

Fresh flavors, top notch seafood, delicious food. Worth the wait.

Food Rating: ****
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 3.5 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Bar Rating:
Party in the USA
(out of 5) ($75-$100 for two)
The BlackJack bar is itself an awesome venue with apparently an amazing kitchen in and of itself, but it's also the perfect place for a pre-dinner drink and to wait out a table.

Pearl Dive Oyster Palace on Urbanspoon

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