July 26, 1971 | Vintage Insatiable

Pearl’s: The Scrutable Ouch

        Masochism’s insidious fallout has spawned an exotic Manhattan mutation, haut snobisme in chinoiserie: Pearl’s Chinese Restaurant. A temple sacred to the glorification of the lettuce leaf and the scrutable ouch. Here is the Dragon Lady herself, Pearl of the glacial mien and the hoarded welcome. Or is she a sweetheart, a benevolent yenta, improvising fine seasonal delicacies to tempt jaded pets? And what are all these calculatedly beautiful faces doing here, the tended, touched-up, hauntingly familiar faces of our kultur heroes and konsuming heroines?

        Such chic…such high-priced dazzle…in this coolly simple little Cantonese commissary. Here at 149 West 48th is Living Sociology: that great Sunday night sloth known colloquially as “eating Chinks” has come of age.

        Now and then a trickle of bourgeois scruff invades these perimeters of Beautiful. But such incursions only magnify the general intimations of magnificence. There are the Paleys yook soonging with Truman Capote. Here is Mercouri. And Georgia O’Keeffe. Charlotte Ford and Anthony Newley hiding out from the paparazzi. Richard and Dorothy Rodgers. Michael Caine. Mastroianni with a pale redhead no one recognizes…it is a chameleon Catherine Deneuve. And invading the kitchen with house sanction: Danny Kaye.

        Not that Pearl’s was ever the least bit tacky. It was clubby from the beginning, with a sophisticated ancestry. Letting Pearl orchestrate lunch at the old Canton Village was virtually an addiction for a loyal retinue from the theater, Seventh Avenue and Time Inc. Her taste and instinct for indulgence were a legend. When the Wongs, Pearl and husband Jimmy, were cast into exile by a new management, 53 fans put up $62,000 to help finance a new restaurant, with a onetime Canton Village chef in the kitchen. Donald Brooks bought a share, and so did Sidney Lumet, but the majority of the proxies were held by backers from the Luce books: Life’s Ralph and Eleanor Graves, Mary Leatherbee (who got word of the offering by cable in Crete), David Scherman, photographer Eliot Elisofon, and Keith Wheeler, now at On the Sound. “No one expected to make money,” Life managing editor Ralph Graves observes. “We thought we’d have fun and good food. But it turns out to be the best investment I ever made.” In three years backers had recovered their stake.

        At the first and only stockholders’ meeting, Ralph Graves recalls, there was one Japanese lady with three votes, a CIA stalwart and mate from Baltimore, some restaurant industry backers and the Time Inc. troops. It was moved (but never seconded) that the house stop giving free drinks to stockholders. There didn’t seem to be any other pressing business so stockholder’s meetings were abandoned for an annual Chinese New Year’s lunch. Gastronomic excellence at Pearl’s new niche was quickly pronounced by Craig Claiborne, and the ultimate kiss of chic delivered the day Mike Nichols brought Jacqueline Kennedy to nibble at lemon chicken. Stockholders insist they don’t mind getting pushed around on Sunday, or even being turned away. “I can see these tables turning,” says Mary Leatherbee, whose bland diet prompted Pearl to invent steamed eggs with oyster sauce. Even a stockholder gets a frown if he reserves for six and arrives with eight. Once Capote asked for a table for eleven and Pearl said, “No, I haven’t enough chairs.” During a dinner conference with Jessica Mitford, David Scherman accidentally let a page of Mitford prose slip to the floor. The article went to press without it. There was, therefore, one spot that didn’t quite scan, Scherman remembers, “so we did a little transition.” Three days later Pearl handed him a piece of copy: “Is this yours?” Scherman is a seven-or-eight-times-a-week regular at Pearl’s and suffers no trace of ennui. Serious habitués, like Scherman and the Graveses, marvel at Pearl’s genius for inventing new combinations. So dining here is inevitably less wondrous without the high priestess of Oriental snub clucking fondly over you.

        Sunday is a preemptory of chic, when even seasoned communications must beg and bend for a table (or reserve four days in advance). Even status-savvy Bobby Zarem, the man from Rogers, Cowan & Brenner, must plead and tease. “Well, who’s coming tonight, Pearl.  Tell me. Bill Blass. Arnold Scaasi. I can beat both of them up. Oh, Pearl.” And finally he wins a spot. “But don’t come before 9:15 p.m.,” Pearl warns. The faces this night are perhaps a shade less than glorious but still reassuringly familiar. Everyone is definitely someone. Or used to be. Count the splendid orphans from Elaine’s (shuttered now these summer weekends): David Halberstam, Michael Arlen, the Burt Glinns en famille in the unfashionable rear, and a coven of the Boutique Boys in pop body shirts: Marc Bohan, Philippe Guibourgué of Miss Dior, Cardin’s Andre Oliver and Bonwit’s Danny Zarem. The Zarem brothers are at adjoining tables, reminding Bobby that once he managed to dine in the rear unseen by Danny and slip a personally hand-written fortune cookie into Danny’s dessert with a warning: “Beware the shtick dreck at your table.”

        Tonight the geriatric set is Givenchy’d. The young-in-spirit are hot-panted in satin and suede, very Roller Derby. There is even one genuine 100 per cent everyday ordinary family – father, mother, junior and sis – in a state of Sunday neighborhood dress that is real, baggy, soiled and not designed by Yves St. Laurent – and which provokes near-hysterical snickers from the Boutique table. Everybody is into the yook soong craze. Out of the kitchen a steady stream of lettuce globes comes bowling by.

        The room is a monument to restraint – not a dragon or lantern in sight, not even a scroll; nothing. All the tacky clichés are sternly avoided for a stark simplicity that is almost forbidding. The menu is similarly sparse and understated, a modest no-sell catalogue of mostly Cantonese genesis: egg, noodle and rice dishes from $3.25, entrees from $4.90 to $8.50; there is an additional, slightly less expensive, luncheon menu.

        But the Dragon Lady’s favorites never see a menu. “Feed us, Pearl,” they say. And out of the season’s bounty, Pearl’s imagination and chef Lee Lum’s artistry come steamed clams in black bean sauce, fragrant Chinese sausage, mung bean sprout with the bean on, asparagus with spicy shrimp, and quick stir-fried viands fired in the Szechuan style, so hot you weep and sneeze and choke…but so good you cannot leave one peppery morsel. The menu is strictly for novitiates. Host Zarem has never actually seen it before. Pearl, in her stark black midi with gold coin chain belt, smiles indulgently as I ask to see it. But Bobby Zarem has already composed this dinner in fantasy. Soon we are sipping a callow but refreshing white Spanish wine, Vina Pacetta ($4.75) and dipping into our own yook soong ($3.50), fine minced pork with bits of ginger and water chestnut, to be rolled inside a cool pale green lettuce wrap with a splash of scallion-studded hoi-sin sauce, sweet and spicy – and exquisite dissonance of tastes and textures. Next come crisp, tasty chicken wings ($3) to dip in a saucer of fried salt and pepper. Then fresh crab in black bean sauce, with bits of pork and shredded scallion, bound with egg ($6 an order for four), a seductive delicacy that must be reserved in advance. And finally, flavorful cubes of marinated beef with crisp snow peas ($4.95), the meat tender and pink inside, with commendable bite. The service is courtly, with fresh plates and fresh silver for each dish. When our host tries to retain a fork he has grown fond of, the waiter will not hear of it.

        Even on strictly anonymous and unpampered eating expeditions to Pearl’s, the service can be classy though disinterested, And even in the chilling draft of neglect, without Pearl as guru, the food can be remarkably good. The vegetables are always crisp, the meats are flavorful. There is an air of “cooked-to-order.” The martinis are impeccable. The fried noodles to munch with apéritif are the crunchiest in captivity. Best of the dumplings is fun gor ($1.60), crabmeat with the heady peanut butter taste of sesame, in a pastry dough wrap. Given my confessed passion for spicier fare, I must still admire tender, juicy, flavorful pork with garlicky black bean sauce, and a nice crunch of mustard green ($5). Sedate, anise-scented squab ($8.50) is brought to the table under a camouflage of coriander…crisp-fried and tender, to dip in fried salt. Rare and peppery are beef chunks in the Szechuan style, with bits of tree ear, strips of lotus root and water chestnut. And, of course, the lemon chicken is internationally celebrated. Chef Lum’s Technicolor glorification of a Chinese classic is a sweet-sour delicacy to please the most timid palate. Strips of boneless chicken breast are marinated in a soy, sesame, salt and gin bath, then dipped in water chestnut flour, fried and served over shredded lettuce doused in a tangy-sweet lemon sauce with slivered scallions, carrots, green peppers and pineapple. At one late lunch, the lemon chicken arrived tasting like overcandied lemon leather. But at a dinner some nights later, it was sweetly tender. And for a memorable seduction of both eye and palate there is steamed bass ($6), delicate and achingly tender, studded with chives and ginger in a sweet pool of zesty soy.

        Desserts are predictable: fruits canned and preserved, ice cream and cookies…but don’t miss the sensuous translucent flesh of fresh lichee during June, its short-happy season.

        And don’t try to crash the carry-out barrier. It is hostile, restricted to stock-holders, the fiercely faithful – on special occasions – and Barbara Streisand. Barbara was so persuasive when she phoned from Los Angeles to order lemon chicken that Pearl acquiesced. By a delicious whim of fate couturier Arnold Scaasi just happened to be headed that way. Scaasi made the cross-country delivery.

                                                              149 West 48th Street, 586-1060.

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