Friday, September 30, 2005

Chinese in Cleveland New York City Entry #16

Those who search for the chimera of authenticity find some restaurants that just don’t belong. The image of the place in which they are found argues against their presence. Can there be superb Chinese in Cleveland, fajitas in Fargo, or tandoori in Tampa. The debate over the possibility (according to Ed Levine) that the best pizza in America can be found in Phoenix at Chris Bianco’s Pizzeria Bianco is a case in point. To the extent that food is about ingredients and talent, no place should have a particular claim to greatness (unless, as some say, there is something in the water). But eating is also about an appreciative community of diners – and about imagination.

This came to mind at dinner at Rebecca Charles’ Pearl Oyster Bar in the West Village. Much (although not all) of the food served at Pearl might be found any number of lobster shacks along the Maine coast. Indeed, the last lobster roll I ate was from The Clam Shack in the village of Kennebunkport, consumed by the Atlantic on a perfect summer afternoon.

As quaint as the village of Greenwich may sometimes be, it has no ocean spray. The smells, memorable though they may be, are not those of salty sea air. But aren’t New Yorkers as entitled to a finely made lobster roll as Down Easters, or Cheeseheads for that matter?

The Pearl Oyster Bar is a tight space, simple and spare as any Mainer would recognize. The back room where we were seated is rather cramped and we felt somewhat rushed at this very popular restaurant (its 27 Zagat rating is undeserved, but not its popularity).

I began with a lovely plate of Prince Edward Island mussels in cream, wine, parsley, and mustard. The mussels were plump and pumpkin-orange; in their blacks shells mussels are the perfect Halloween cuisine. This was a fine starter, and a generous one. While one might find bivalves up the Maine coast, such elegance and subtly is not to be had at a coastal shack.

The lobster roll was exemplary, even if it carried a New York price tag ($22, about double my last roll). The lobster was buttery and fresh. The crispy shoestring potatoes were just fine, not as meaty as Maine fried potatoes, but not New York anorexic either. To claim that the Pearl’s roll was superior would be misleading, and, as much as I enjoyed my dining partners, I would choose to have my lobster accompanied by blowing sea foam.

Dessert was a superior blueberry crumble pie with vanilla ice cream. The ice cream was pleasant, and the blueberries with its crumb topping were sweet and slightly acidic, a most enjoyable close to a lobster meal. If I had my choice I would pick lowbush blueberries and eat them au naturel (the berries, of course).

However, choice is the issue. Perhaps we should force Iowans, New Mexicans, or Virginians only to eat locally produced foods, foods with a stamp of authenticity, and ban invasive cuisines. As a tourist, this is precisely my strategy for choosing a restaurant.

Yet, New York without Pearl’s and without Cajun, Tex-Mex, and California smoothies would be a lesser place for locals and guests alike (Barbeque is another issue). I welcome that Pearl’s brings a downeast flavor to the Village while knowing its place, keeping diners free from faux foam.

Pearl Oyster Bar
18 Cornelia Street
Manhattan (West Village)


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