I went with my friends Nik and Jack to Pearl Oyster Bar solely because I’d read a Chowhound thread about the lobster pot pie they were making for two weeks only. Apparently this thing was such a big deal that they’d sell out of it within moments of opening the doors, so we rushed to the West Village on a Monday night right after work and tried to order the lobster pot pie before we even saw the menu. Of course that was the only night they’d decided to take a break from making it.
Luckily, Pearl Oyster Bar happens to be known for its lobster roll, and in fact, Chef Rebecca Charles is said to have been the first chef to bring the lobster roll from New England to New York City. Three lobster rolls, three clam chowders, and a plate of fried oysters later, we weren’t missing that lobster pot pie in the least.
Perfectly creamy with just a hint of seafood flavor, this was almost geared more toward the bacon-lovers than the clam-lovers. So I loved it.
The guys, neither of which actually likes oysters, said these melted in their mouths and had none of the slimy texture that oyster-haters always cite. They loved the thick, crispy breading and the dollop of tartar sauce served in the shells.
You have to like mayo to like Pearl Oyster Bar’s lobster roll. You also have to like huge, unbroken hunks of lobster meat. The chunks were sometimes so big that I had to take them off the roll and eat them with a fork and knife. And yet there was so much lobster meat on the roll that even removing half of it left me with a full, fat sandwich. The bun was browned and buttery, just slightly crisp on the outside. It was seasoned just right, with enough going on to hold my interest but never so much as to overpower the fresh, clean lobster flavor.
And as if that wasn’t enough on its own, the lobster roll came with a side of shoestring fries piled higher than the lobster itself. They were a little too thin and difficult to eat for me, but if shoestring is your thing, these had the crunch and the salt you’re looking for.
This Belgian chocolate mousse was just as dark and thick as it looks, but we weren’t prepared for how unsweet it was. The whipped cream, too. It was like eating frosting made for adults.
I expected something other than hot fudge and ice cream in this sundae, but nope, it was straight-up classic. The fudge lined the side of the glass from top to bottom and was a nice unsweet contrast to the vanilla ice cream.
Pearl Oyster Bar is what I consider the definitive West Village restaurant. It’s not a hip new East Village place crowded with college kids but a neighborhoody one that’s casual enough for an everyday dinner but also cute enough for a grown-up date. It feels relaxed and established, like a seafood shack in an old fishing town, but there’s just enough of an edge to the food to remind you you’re in NYC.
For the longest time, the list of restaurants in NYC with three Michelin stars was three long, and there was one I couldn’t visit: Le Bernardin. My boyfriend, god bless him, didn’t want to drop a few hundred on a bunch of fish that he knew I’d only complain about, even after he went to the restaurant with a client and came home unable to stop talking about the things he’d seen. But after proving myself capable of continuing to gulp down guppies even in the face of great adversity recently, he finally relented and invited me to the three-course, $70 lunch.
And just as he suspected, I’m going to complain about it.
The place settings waiting at the table were some of the most beautiful I’ve seen. The white plates were immediately replaced with fresh ones on which to eat our salmon rillettes.
I’m to the point with fish where I could eat raw salmon all day long, but smoked salmon is still fairly unappetizing to me. Still, I took a heaping spoonful of this spread and applied it to my chewy bread hopefully. It tasted just like I expected, which is to say smoked salmon. I was hoping for a tuna-salad-like flavor experience, where I could be distracted from the fish by the celery or the pickles. I’ve seen recipes for this that involve leeks and onions, bay leaves and peppercorns, but this tasted much simpler, like smoked salmon slightly subdued by mayonnaise, slightly perked up with chives. I was a bigger fan of the Parker House roll I chose from the bread basket.
The wines-by-the-glass list wasn’t very extensive, but the one Riesling on hand was sweet enough for the citrus in my appetizer but dry enough to pair well with the beefiness of my entree. Perfect for my needs.
Our other dining companion had this, and I failed to ask her for impressions. It’s highly recommended on all of the review sites, though, so do with that what you will.
In this preparation, octopus was the steak of the sea. It was thick, meaty, and hearty, yet tender, too. The charred suckers were the perfect crispy topping, and the sweetness of the meat was complimented by the savory black bean sauce and pears. My boyfriend said the “major flavor drama” was the charred shellfish against the tart tang of the bean, pear, and ink.
Le Bernardin meant it when they named one of their menu sections “almost raw”. If these were “cooked” at all, it was by the citrus in many of the preparations. Clockwise, there were plain scallops, scallops with olive oil and sea beans, with piquillo peppers, with wasabe and roe, and with yuzu and shiso. It truly was a progression from simple to complex, starting with the purest scallop flavor, moving to the crispy bean and lemony olive oil, then to the sweet pepper, to the spicy, crunchy roe, and ending with the big kick of the yuzu. I certainly prefer the texture of seared scallops, but I couldn’t have asked for better accoutrements.
This was another dish ordered by our friend, and again, we were too busy yakking about other things for me to catch her thoughts on it.
My boyfriend ordered this, and I was shocked to see the pile of truffle slices on top! He said the truffle butter was the star of the dish, and I agree that buttery is the best descriptor for his dish in general, but I’m surprised that big ol’ stack of truffle wasn’t written somewhere on the menu.
I’ll admit that I ordered this a little bit to suck up to my Persian boyfriend and a little bit because I’ve had a hankerin’ for his mom’s cooking lately. This was all the flavors I’ve been craving. The sauce was like a rich beef broth, the cucumbers fresh and sour with a bite. The garlic cloves were sweet and jam-like in texture, spreading smoothly onto the bass with my fork. I loved the crisp skin and the seared edges of the fish and longed for more surface area.
When the server set this in front of our dining partner, she said, “Oh, I ordered the pistachio,” and the server nodded. I think she actually expected to see pistachios somewhere on the plate.
My boyfriend only ordered this for the name, and it looked like the least interesting thing on the menu to me. When he gave me a bite, though, I was ready to trade. The choux pastry had a crunchy sugar top and the flavor of brown butter with a little sourness from the powder. I usually want to eat choux for the filling, but this was all about the shell.
I was concerned that this dessert would be too light and that I’d miss having chocolate, but I couldn’t resist the call of the spicy yuzu and ginger and am so glad I went with my gut instead of my brain. The yuzu parfait was a cold cross between mousse and meringue, supplemented by the thick white yuzu foam. There was a chewy green tea cake under the ice cream and dots of a sweet and sour sticky ginger sauce. I loved the crisp of the rice but thought that the green tea was enough of a savory element that the sesame wasn’t necessary. Otherwise, a flawless dessert.
We were only disappointed that the bottom of this bowl had a little pedestal in it to prop up these warm, chewy pistachio madeleines to linen-parting heights and make it look more full; we thought we’d be there snacking all afternoon.
The reason I don’t think Le Bernardin stands up to the other 3-Michelin-star restaurants in NYC surprisingly has nothing to do with the fish; our fish was cooked perfectly, sauced perfectly, presented perfectly. What was lacking was the rest of the dish; all of the entrees seemed incomplete. Each dish was just fish, and no plate of pickles will convince me otherwise. Dishes at Per Se, for instance, are also composed of a protein, a sauce, and small side items, but the difference is that those sides items are creative, intricate creations like cauliflower panna cotta and spinach pain perdu. On the other hand, I found the service and decor luxurious (finger bowls with lemon between courses and plush banquettes that begged to be lounged upon), and I loved seeing that Chef Eric Ripert was actually working in the kitchen. I’d return to Le Bernardin for exceptional desserts and a perfect piece of fish, but I’d bring a purse full of side dishes from somewhere else along with me.
Flex Mussels gets pretty good reviews. It has four stars on Google, four stars on Yelp, four stars on Menupages. So when my boyfriend insisted that I eat a steaming pot of mollusk in exchange for getting to try some of Executive Pastry Chef Zac Young‘s famed creations, I thought I was probably safe.
We showed up at 7:55 for our 8 p.m. reservation and were asked to wait. Not a big deal. A couple came in after us and were seated immediately. Fine. Then another. And another. Even though we were standing right beside her, my boyfriend thought maybe he needed to mention to the hostess that we were still waiting to be seated. She said we were next. And then seated some more couples. I had read reviews that mentioned the aloofness/disorganization of the service, so it wasn’t entirely unexpected, but I also kind of felt like saying, “Um, you DO know that the Upper East Side is the middle of nowhere to me, right? I could be at any one of the Momofukus right now.”
Finally, after fifteen minutes, we were given a table, and the guy who seated us said, “I’m so sorry that happened.” And I asked, “What DID happen?” And he said there had been a problem in the kitchen and gave us a beer and a glass of wine to make up for it. I appreciated the gesture and will try not to automatically deduct two donuts from my rating from the start because of it.
I basically think salad is a waste of space, but I’ve been known to eat my words when I come across a truly delicious one. For some reason, I’m more likely to like a wedge salad than any other kind (especially the ones at Docks Oyster Bar and Dinosaur Bar-B-Que); maybe because they’re usually heaped with all sorts of nasty, fatty goodies? This one was clearly no different with its loads of crunchy bacon to contrast the freshness of the grapes and radish. I found that the sharp blue cheese dressing just really overpowered everything else on the plate, though.
My boyfriend got the 23rd mussel iteration on the menu, which changes daily. He had wanted multiple types of seameat in his pot, so that night’s special seemed like the perfect choice for him. Firstly, there were exactly two clams mixed in with his mussels. Secondly, his lobster was one giant chunk that was nearly impossible to eat with the spoon provided. He said it “wasn’t much of a to-do, flavor-wise”. And this was from the person who really loves and craves seafood.
From the description of this, I maybe-foolishly pictured it being thick and creamy. New England Clam Chowder was one of the first seafoody dishes I had when my boyfriend was trying to get me acclimated to fish after eating a diet of only land-based foods during my twenty-five years in Ohio, and there was nothing not-delicious about it. I guess my broth was a little thicker than his, but at the end of the day, it was still broth.
The mussels were actually better than I expected. I didn’t like how chewy they were right out of the shell, but when I extracted them all using my tiny fork and left them to soak in the steaming broth a while longer, they fell apart in my mouth. I liked the firmer texture of the lobster and the familiar comforts of the bacon slivers and corn kernels, and as far as taste goes, I think I got the right combination for me.
It’s just that . . . mussels are weird! Some of them had sand in their bulging, black digestive systems still, which was unpleasant enough to begin with, but that got me thinking about the fact that I was eating the digestive system, and I developed this mind block that just wouldn’t let me enjoy my heaping portion of bivalves.
My boyfriend said, “Just slurp ‘em down. Don’t look at them too much.” But that’s kind of a problem for me. Half of the fun of eating is the looking! So while I usually say, “I thought this [any other kind of seafood] was going to be icky, but it was actually awesome!”, I won’t be saying that about mussels.
The reviews on these are either “way overrated” or “OMGbestfriesever!” They were fine, but they weren’t $6 fine, especially when Pommes Frites is serving better and more fries for $4.50 with interesting sauces to boot. The only reason I’m glad we ordered them is that it gave me something else to fill up on when the mussel flavor got monotonous.
Finally, dessert time! The warm, sugar-dusted donuts lived up to their hype. So soft they deflated under the slightest touch, their pure bleached carbiness was only intensified by the vanilla crème anglaise served on the side. The gooey, flavored sauces nestled inside each one were too delicious to exist in such small quantities.
We thought we’d saved the best for last. Before starting in on the donuts, we’d each scooped a little of the ribbon of caramel onto our forks and nearly died from the shock of how good it was. But . . . the whoopie pie was not delicious.
I almost feel bad saying it, because how could it not be good? I’m a total glutton. I make fun of frou-frou desserts that favor fruit over chocolate. But this was just overindulgence for the sake of it. It wasn’t thoughtful. It was complex but not sensical. It was just deep-fried cake with some mismatched accoutrements.
The cake was nice and warm, but that was part of the problem. See, where I’m from, this is a whoopie pie. My mom was known for her whoopie cake. Every year in Ohio, at the neighboring town’s pumpkin festival, I gorge on whoopie pies. I’m something of an expert when it comes to whoopie.
Whoopie pies are two pieces of cookie-shaped cake with a big schmear of icing between them. And since this was just one giant hunk of deep-friedness, the filling in the middle had melted into the cake. Oh, and by the way–the stuff in the middle? It was just cream cheese. Not cream cheese icing. So it was unpleasantly not-sweet.
On the other hand, the non-whoopie-pie portion of the dish was absolutely decadent in a good way. The caramel mousse was rich and thick and salty and nicely contrasted the less-sugary ice cream. The white chocolate piece was iridescent, which we hoped was thanks to the pastry chef’s famed “disco dust”. I would order the caramel and ice cream on their own again but couldn’t even begin to finish the whoopie pie the first time.
Flex Mussels was just disappointment after disappointment for me. I liked our actual server quite a bit, but between the wait for a table when we had reservations, the too-pungent blue cheese, the un-chowdery chowder, the two clams, and the throwaway ball of cake, it ranks with some of the least-impressive dining experiences I’ve had for $100. I’ll give one star for the mussels that were tender and not undigested-food-filled, one star for the donuts and amazing caramel, and a half star for the idea of the whoopie pie.
5 donuts: transcendent experiences
4.5 donuts: extremely awesome meals
3.5 donuts: good eats
2.5 donuts: food I could have made
1 donuts: dinners not fit for the dogs
• Daniel (2)
• Eleven Madison Park
• Eleven Madison Park (2)
• Eleven Madison Park (3)
• Le Bernardin
• Per Se
• Per Se (2) (extended tasting)
• Per Se (3) (vegetarian tasting)
• Per Se (4)