June 1, 2010 | BITE: My Journal

Summer@Pearl Oyster Bar

Lobster rolls ride in under a haystack of crisp matchstick potatoes. Photo: Steven Richter
Lobster rolls ride in under a haystack of crisp matchstick potatoes. Photo: Steven Richter

        First warm weekend of spring, our friends swarm en masse to the Hamptons. The Road Food Warrior and I choose constant far flung overseas travel – Venice, Peru, Japan, Argentina, the Yucatan, most recently Tunisia over a grey shingled cottage or even a shack near the beach.  For a taste of summer and a scent of the shore, we head to Pearl Oyster Bar.

No reservations means fans pace and dawdle outside. Photo: Steven Richter

        No sunburn. No sand in my shoes. No ticks. No stray dogs. No raucous volleyball games. No hot young babes in bikinis. Pearl Oyster Bar is civilized summer in a lobster roll - an homage by owner Rebecca Charles to her grandmother Pearl.  I try to order something besides that iconic eruption of a sandwich. I always hope one of my companions will order something other than the inevitable buttery bun heaped with huge chunks of lobster oozing a delicious excess of mayonnaise.  There is always fish on the blackboard menu. Pan roasted halibut tonight, whole grilled pompano or red snapper, lobsters grilled or boiled, and soft shell crabs.  So now I’m confessing another journalistic flaw: 1999 was the last time I tasted fish here. It was a whole grilled sea bass and too cooked for me.  Before that I dared a halibut sandwich at lunch and waxed lyrical.

Never quite get enough mayonnaise? Well, tonight you will! Photo: Steven Richter

        One night in fall I came with friends who’d never been before. Normally on a reviewing excursion I insist everyone order something different. But how could I deny these newbies the ultimate lobster roll?  My friend Penny gasped, “You mean we can just eat whatever we really want?” Three of us opted for Caesar salad – buttery croutons, impeccably dressed, too much green to be perfection for me. Of course we all demanded a taste of Steven’s thick, creamy clam chowder with its kick of smoky bacon.  Then four lobster rolls hit the table. I didn’t care what anyone thought.  I was in a mayo junkie swoon.  Even the apple pie with a roof like slab of vanilla ice cream had that loveable old time Maine style and heft.

Early on, till Chef Charles leased next door, there was just this counter. Photo: Steven Richter

        Now I’m back on a steamy spring evening with two more couples on a first time jaunt. What kind of friends do I have? They go to the Galapagos and Borneo before they venture to Cornelia Street. The counter and cubby next door, tiny tables pressed close, are packed and restless, waiting fans eyeing each other suspiciously the way paranoid New Yorkers do.  By the time our six has assembled, a six top table is just vacating. 

"People are getting fussy about salt," the chef says, sending out a less salty batch of shoestrings. Photo: Steven Richter

        The evening’s special scallop chowder is a thick creamy porridge with the tiniest tickle of Pernod. So much cream! What fun. I’m already out of control. And the Caesar is in its usual mood: great dressing, a little anchovy tang, too much green. (“That’s the way my mother made it,” says Rebecca. “It’s healthier and I like it better.”) Crusty fried oysters stuck in a luscious swamp of her own version of tartar sauce (capers and cornichon instead of sweet pickle) arrive, gift of the chef. Okay, maybe this is tartar sauce overkill. I’m scraping the last bit from the shell with my finger.

The lush tartar sauce is her own, with capers and cornichons. Photo: Steven Richter

        As always, lobster rolls ride in almost hidden under a thatch of matchstick fries looking like giant Van Gogh haystacks. As I’ve come to expect, the roll so easily ignored most everywhere else teases in its buttery toasted perfection. There is a huge morsel of chewy mayo-swathed lobster right on top and a dozen more that are just right.  As always I wonder if Rebecca has slipped in an extra half lobster: critics’oblige. The skinny potato twigs best eaten hot seem over-salted to me.  Are they accidently over-salted, normally very salty, or am I and the Mayor just being more sensitive all of a sudden?  At the risk of being written off as a spoiled bitch, I send my plate back.  A lightly salted stack returns.  Yes, now I can taste the potato.

I think the bouillabaisse deserves another crouton and a side of aioli. Photo: Steven Richter

        A few of my companions are trying to diet. Wrong night, kids, but whatever…  One asks if he can have soft shell crabs sautéed rather than deep fried.  He gives me a taste. Delicious. I scoop up a bit of broth in a mussel shell from my neighbor’s bouillabaisse.

        "Too many mussels,” she gripes, “Not enough of everything else.”  Still it’s bouillabaisse at a bargain, just $22, though I agree that just one dab of aioli on just one crouton is a bit starchy for me too. I resist reminding her I didn’t suggest ordering bouillabaisse.  We make choices in life.  Her jeans are size 2. Mine come with elastic.

It’s not a seashore moon. It’s a Manhattan moon and that’s just fine. Photo: Steven Richter

        Some will be cranky that Pearl’s does not take reservations. Waiting more than fifteen minutes will make some sulky and others grateful. Some will complain that  $28 to $32 for whole fish and $27 for a lobster roll seems pricey for just fish at a counter. But then it’s just $12 for six fried oysters, $7 for New England clam chowder and $7 or $8 for a glass of drinkable white. Pearl’s is our short cut to Cape Cod, where beachfront is always a premium.

18 Cornelia Street. between Bleeker and West 4th Street. 212 691 8211. Lunch Monday through Friday noon to 2:30 pm. Dinner Monday through Saturday 6 to 11 pm.  No reservations.