RESTAURANT REVIEW: Pearlz 

Raw and Dirty

Pearlz
Seafood
Entrées $10-$15
153 E. Bay St.
Downtown
577-5755

Serving raw oysters is a delicate business. Perhaps no other food has been saddled with such complex gustatory guidelines. Their very nature, a juxtaposition of soft, salty slime against a gritty shell, has imbued the oyster with a mystique all its own. They are mythic creatures and treated as such — trembling little dollops of sea and sky, focusing a concentrated taste of nature upon the tongue of those brave enough to slurp one down. Since the dawn of their consumption, numerous pundits have instructed the diner on how, when, and in what guise they should consume an oyster. As early as 1599, Henry Buttes declared, "The oyster is unseasonable and unwholesome in all months that have not the letter R in their name." Fortunately, he was dead wrong. If they are indeed aphrodisiacal, as sometimes rumored, then we should be positively ecstatic that Pearlz will be serving them up year-round — it just might be the best little raw bar in town.

Tucked away among the high flyers of East Bay Street, Pearlz represents the Charleston that we all wish for. It's an unassuming place, devoid of the glitz and glamour so often associated with contemporary downtown restaurants. Pearlz plies its trade with the austerity of a longshoreman, unloading generous plates of saltwater mollusks at more than reasonable prices.

The selection, as it should be, is ever changing, with a variety of sizes, shapes, tastes, and origins scrawled daily upon the chalkboard. They come, shucked fast and furiously while you watch from your bar-side perch, on a bed of crushed ice, quivering in their cold salty brine before being sucked down in your preferable method of choice — served neat, cocktailed, or with a piquant mignonette sauce. Whether you suck or slurp, Pearlz has you deliciously covered.

And get this; they serve other stuff as well. After tucking away a couple dozen oysters at one of the community tables, private booths, or large bar, big eaters will be delighted to find a creative selection of appetizers, entrées, and soups — not to mention the extensive list of martini creations. Of course, the menu features more mollusks (presumably yesterday's fresh culls) in myriad guises: fried, en papillote, steamed, gumbo-ed, and Rockefeller-ed; one can make a complete meal of shellfish alone and never tread into the meatier portions of the menu.

The "Seafood Sliders" ($9.95) represent a study in greasy stomach bombs, perfect after (or perhaps before) a night of downtown carousing. Three mini-"burgers," made of shrimp, wasabi-tuna, and crabcake, playfully deliver a White Castle-Charleston fusion, each exemplarily showcasing its featured seafood ingredient inside of an old-school miniature bun, escorted by crispy, homespun potato chips. "Jumbo Lump Crabcakes" ($8.95) are all crab, less cake — which is a refreshing deviation from the many thickly-breaded versions found around town these days. These cakes are no hushpuppies incognito; they deliver a moist interior, flaking with large segments of fresh backfin crab — a pure showcase of the local blue crab with an accompanying spicy mustard sauce and crispy broccoli slaw providing the perfect foil for the rich flavor of the meat.

Other dishes are perhaps a bit less satisfying. The "Pearlz Select Fresh Fish Catch" (market price), which can be ordered blackened, fried, pan seared, or grilled and served with a choice of sauces, emerges, at least some of the time, as an over-cooked, salty mess, intimating a lack of execution in an otherwise respectable kitchen. Equally non-impressive is the "New England Lobster Roll" ($12.95), overflowing with tough nuggets of claw meat that find themselves overwhelmed by the accompanying herbs. An acceptable raw bar dish, but at 13 bucks, it's hardly posing as blue-collar bar fare.

Pearlz has already established itself as a late-night favorite with the food and beverage crowd, and for good reason. A dark wood atmosphere and fresh seafood combine with an imaginative martini menu to produce a great place to unwind after a hard day at work or night on the town; slurp down some shellfish and cavort with good friends. The great bar (free pour, of course), succulent oysters, creative food, and proximity to the touristy section of town should keep Pearlz around for quite some time. With a little improvement to the entrée menu and better execution in the kitchen, the place could become something truly special.

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