The Black Pearl
Work in progress
by Bix Engels
I'm having trouble with my metaphors here. I want to say that walking into a restaurant for the first time is a blind date. But if you had as bad a first date as we did on our initial outing at the Black Pearl, it would likely have been your last. So maybe the better imagery here is about second chances-things can get better.
Admittedly, we hit it early. We'd been watching this Main Street space for months as banners in the window promised "Coming soon." Ratcheting hopes that high increases the temptation to put a place to the test too soon. And then there was a matter of emphasis: I'd been looking forward to the seafood part of what's officially called the Black Pearl Seafood & Martini Bar-but early on, its accent was more on the bar.
One step into the long, narrow room and there was no doubt: this is definitely a bar. I'm starting to think of its creator, John Janviriya, as the Christopher Nolan of restaurant design: Janviriya creates these dark and moody spaces-cerebral, modern, and a little decadent. That's true of both the Black Pearl and his first Ann Arbor creation, Mélange. But the Black Pearl is rougher around the edges than Mélange-louder and less sensual than its subterranean sibling, with no standouts in the black-on-black decor. Lined with black slate tiles on the floor and up one wall, padded on the other wall with tufted black velvet, furnished with black chairs and tables, the room is focused on a sleek black granite bar, above which rattan ceiling fans rotate hypnotically.
I stopped by on opening night and cajoled the hostess out of a menu. That's when I got my first "uh-oh" feeling. The least expensive appetizer, the creatively spelled "pommes fritts," was $7. Most of the starters were in the $10-$15 range-more than many of the sandwiches. A bowl of clam chowder was $11. Huh?
We went back a few weeks later to actually
try the food. Drinks-for me, a glass chosen from a short, dull, uninformative wine list; for my friends, fancy martinis like the "pearcicle" with pear vodka and elderflower liqueur-carried us through till the appetizers arrived. We'd ordered a few starters to split, which, unfortunately for our table of four, came mostly in groupings of three. The garlic shrimp were plump and perfectly sautéed but had just the barest trace of garlic flavor. The oysters in the bacony oysters Rockefeller were overpowered by lumpy lardoons and a shaggy coat of spinach covered with a hardened clump of Parmesan. The simple raw oysters were good-fresh and slippery-although I wish our server had been able to supply us with more information about what varieties we were getting (according to the menu, the trio consists of one Chesapeake and two "rotating oysters"). That $7 cone of french fries was a generous portion, but the standardized potatoes didn't distinguish themselves enough to be featured as a separate appetizer.
We never order two of the same dish, so there was a minor duel at our table as to who would get the cioppino. But when the winner put in her bid, the server replied with a grimace, "Oh, I really can't recommend the cioppino. They haven't got that recipe right yet." Of the four entrees we eventually did order, only one, a sesame-encrusted seared tuna, was above par, perfectly seared on the outside and savagely pink in the middle. A $25 petit filet was tender but minuscule and overcooked, and accompanied by lumpy mashed potatoes. A good-sized portion of sea bass was neatly roasted but cradled in some kind of orange-colored sweetish glop. Scallops were crusted with a spice blend that overwhelmed their characteristic sweet flavor, and then bathed in a "chiptle burr blanc" sauce that tasted as if the cream had gone off. At least I didn't spill the whole sloppy plate of scallops that the busboy had me hold above my head while he cleared off the appetizer dishes. This was one time I was grateful a kitchen had failed to warm a plate.
The server seemed overjoyed when we came to dessert. "The good news is they're all made by Zingerman's!" she said. The bad news was the bill, which came to $260 before the tip. No wonder there's an ATM in the foyer.
On our next visit, we tried some of the nonseafood sandwiches: a shaved prime rib and a Kobe burger. The burger was very good-quality beef, grilled to order, served on a Zingerman's roll-but was accompanied by those forgettable frites. We also split a plate of crab Rangoon as an appetizer-five crisp wontons filled with a molten center of crab. This brought our food bill to more than $40, which seems to be overreaching for two sandwiches and a plate of stuffed wontons-or at least those particular sandwiches and wontons.
However, the Black Pearl's people were clearly getting their act together-because by our next trip, about seven weeks after the opening, they'd fiddled with the menu again. On the downside, that wine list remained uninspired, and they'd tacked on an additional dollar to the price of a good half dozen items. But they were finally offering soups in two sizes, with corresponding prices, so I didn't feel too guilty about ordering a cup of lobster bisque. It was delicious, with booming lobster flavor underscored by fennel and cognac and studded with meaty chunks of sweet crustacean. Then we went with a cold plate from the raw-bar selection-these are ordered by the piece, so they can suit any constellation of guests. We devoured fat prawns with spicy house-made ketchup and a mound of pristine lump crab. The waitress was able to help steer our oyster choices-very smooth Chesapeakes and distinctively briny, almost smoky West Coast Hama Hamas with a dash of mignonette sauce. I had another appetizer for my main course: the crab cakes. They were something of a disappointment with too much mushy filler mucking up the texture, although the flavor and presentation were beautiful.
My husband hit the jackpot with fish tacos. Built around tilapia, which worked surprisingly well here with a piquant rub and precision cooking, the fish was nestled in a fresh crisp corn tortilla, dressed with a spicy slaw and chipotle mayo. The waitress told us the kitchen had just tweaked the recipe. "I could sell them all night," she said. "These things walk themselves out of here."
Every newcomer needs at least one big hit on the menu, and the Black Pearl found it in those fish tacos. Finally, price and quality were meeting in a more agreeable equation. Almost two months in, the service was markedly better as well-efficient and informed.
I haven't exactly fallen for the Black Pearl, but it's moving steadily toward fulfilling a promising concept-seafood and spirits in a casual atmosphere-which I believe is a good one for Main Street. It certainly has the right real estate, and now that food and service appear to be falling in line, I'm already looking forward to fish tacos on the patio next summer.
The Black Pearl Seafood & Martini Bar
302 South Main 222-0400
Sun.-Wed. 5 p.m.-midnight, Thurs.-Sat. 5 p.m.-2 a.m.
Appetizers $7-$15, soups & salads $7-$14, sandwiches $11-$14, entrees $13-$25, desserts $8
Easy access for disabled; restroom on main floor. But arrange for wheelchair seating ahead of time (all tables but one are bar height)
[Originally published in December, 2008.]
On January 5, 2009, John Hilton wrote:
After this review was published in December, we heard from many diners who'd had better experiences. Dr. Jay Sandweiss praised the "friendly, warm, and welcoming" staff, shared a long roster of favorite dishes ("house salad with wasabi dressing followed by Chilean sea bass, salmon, or tuna are dinner delights"), and added a good word for the "wonderful martinis."
Businessman John Kusava singled out the lake perch for special praise: "Whatever concoction of dustings, herbal magic, and swift cooking went into this humble plate of lake fish, stacked tepee style around an adjoining medley of potato and sautéed spinach, I can only say that it has catapulted competing offers from Real Seafood, La Dolce Vita, and the rest of the Main Street dining establishment off the big board forever."
"I love this place!" wrote Borders CEO George Jones. "Great food, live music, and the friendliest place in town!"
"As downtown business owners, customers ask us where to eat all the time," wrote Steven and Katherine Lesse of Abracadabra. "We send them to the Black Pearl. . . . Prices are moderate for Main Street and the clientele is a refreshingly eclectic mix of ages and types. Everyone can enjoy themselves here for a quick bite, group get-together, or raucous celebration. (We took our entire staff there for our own twenty-fourth anniversary celebration.) As a side note, it is the perfect waiting spot for a concert at the Ark. The large picture windows tell you exactly when to hop in line for the 'best seats in the house,' and not a moment too soon!"