Pearl & Ash – New York

When five Wine Advocate reviewers (no, I do not know the collective noun, though I am sure you can think of one) descend into New York demanding “the finest booze known to mankind” without sounding the alarm bell in the TWA accounting department, then the restaurant had better boast a wine list capable of assuaging five diverse and demanding palates, unless they want to have five mopey wine writers on their hands.

My suggestion of KFC was quashed for reasons unknown, though I have a sneaky suspicion that our Monica was desperate to go (next time Monica) before Señor Gutierrez broke into a burst of flamenco and suggested Pearl and Ash. Hmm....sounded like some early 1970s ad agency. However, a cursory glance at their wine list was all I required to see why my Spanish compadre was adamant that Colonel Sanders would have to wait another day. 

Traditionally I commence my restaurant reviews discussing exactly what I shoveled into my mouth. Here we must prioritize the wine list, because it is oenophile catnip. Comprehensive without reading like the Milton Keynes telephone directory, eclectic without being pretentious and mixing new vintages with old, this was a list that loves wine in all its manifestations. The vinous smorgasbord elicited a Molly Bloom-cum-Meg Ryan response – yes, yes, YES! Now, I have not dined at the legendary Berns in Florida, yet this surely constitutes one of the most mouth-watering congregations of fermented grape juice in the USA. In my opinion, the selection is particularly strong in Champagne, Loire, Jura, Burgundy and even that bad boy Bordeaux. Take the latter as example. Price inflation has shoved mature and affordable Claret off many lists, even Michelin-starred ones, where expensive bottles of classified growths are ornamental. So what a pleasure to find an array of châteaux populating both Left and Right Bank that spanned decades, without shying away from off-vintages and at prices that do not resemble the annual GDP of a small equatorial country. Burgundy? There are many assiduously chosen, though I had to resist the one-off rarity: 2013 Le Corton from Coche-Dury. I believe it comes from a parcel that the family purchased in Corton-Charlemagne, Jean-François and Raphael Coche vinifying one vintage from the new plot of Pinot Noir before grafting it over to Chardonnay. No sensible...don’t sound that alarm bell... 

We selected wines democratically, each reviewer choosing one bottle. We commenced with German Riesling chosen by Herr Reinhardt. The 2014 Krettnacher Euchariusberg Spätlese from Hofgut Falkenstein was a predictably fine off-piste choice towards the upper end of the sweetness scale for Spätlese. Yet it retained balance and offered soothing viscosity towards the finish. Prevaricating between my two loves, Bordeaux and Burgundy, I opted for the latter, steering away from Chardonnay and plumping for Jean-Marc Roulot’s none-too-shabby 2013 Bourgogne Aligoté: fragrant with rosewater and ripe peach skin on the nose, the acidity nicely judged, not overly complex, but demonstrating admirable weight on the finish. Luis, who had clearly spent months, possibly years, scouring the wine list, came armed with a shopping list of vinous victims that used up most of the memory on his iPhone 6. Had we drunk them all, we would have missed the incipient Matter of Taste event at the New York Mandarin and that would not have gone down well. He wisely opted for a 1979 Chinon Les Picasses from Olga Raffault. I did not have a clue about this grower, but predictably it was an inspired choice, one of those heartwarming old gems that light up and charm the senses, a vinous memory undiminished by passing years. Comparisons to mature Bordeaux were made, though it did not have the depth or tannic structure. Yet it was delicious: the pepperiness of the Cabernet Franc suffused the vestiges of the earthy red fruit—a little rustic, but “honest” and after three decades, it was fresh, vibrant and only too willing to delight.

The cooking is courtesy of chef Trae Basore. Judging by his photograph on their website, he is half man/half beard and his body mass would appear to be 50% tattoo ink—your archetypal dude-cum-chef. The menu is adventurous insofar that most dishes included one ingredient of indeterminate taxonomy, i.e. we had to inquire: "What is that?" Nothing wrong there. One should strive to expand epicurean horizons, though personally I would simplify a couple of dishes that felt a little muddled in flavor, a bit too earnest and intent on impressing rather than satisfying tastes. We shared tapas-style dishes, always an efficient and enjoyable way to sample the chef's expertise in the kitchen, although I must confess that I departed with hunger pangs despite the number of dishes eaten. There were some plates that would have benefit from being sized-up. These quibbles notwithstanding, there was certainly some inspired cooking. My pick was the venison with rosemary, parsnip and Gorgonzola-date emulsion. I adored the freshness of the meat mixed with the sharpness of the parsnip and then offset by the sweetness of the emulsion. Here, all of the ingredients just seemed to click together. The pork belly was succulent and layered with just the right amount of fat, though again, I could have done with more generosity on the plate. Maybe if I return I would hope that there was just a couple of dishes to form the ballast of the meal, something substantial that will fill an empty, jet-lagged tummy.

Pearl & Ash is a go-to destination for any wine lover in the Big Apple. Along with Racines (which I visited a couple of nights later), I cannot think of a UK wine list that compares—at least not without fleecing its customers. The atmosphere is hip 'n cozy, simply furnished without unnecessary frills. The combination of ingredients worked well across most dishes. As I mentioned, given the depth and quality of the wine list, I would just streamline some of the dishes to enhance the interplay between food and wine, lest the senses become overwhelmed. Hey, if Pearl & Ash can leave five demanding and persnickety wine critics content, then the likelihood is that there is some vinous gem there waiting for you.

And with that, Luis strummed his flamenco guitar, which was our signal to return back to the hotel.

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