I had already been to Pearl, it seemed, before I'd ever walked in.
But it wasn't a Little Pete's flashback I was having when I cracked the door at 1904 Chestnut St. No, that greasiest of greasy-spoon coffee shops had been transformed into something at the complete opposite end of the Pretension Spectrum.
Pearl, at first glance, was all too familiar - as a caricature of the prototypical Old City lounge re-created off Rittenhouse Square.
It's a slick hybrid of nightspot flash and culinary trends that co-owner Scott Stein began to perfect at Red Sky, the austere Market Street lounge-eatery he recently sold. It could have survived on DJs and martinis alone, but the food, to Stein's credit, was always better than expected. At Pearl, meanwhile, which he owns with dad David, brother Sean, and childhood friend Brett Perloff, the concept has been given a $2 million polish of high design and a talented young chef to make it purr.
Beyond the long white bar near the entrance, dark bead curtains shimmered above tall-backed suede booths in the dining room. Moody music pounded the air. And high-tech shifting lights were set to an oddly harsh glow - the kind that highlights stains on fabric. It also made the roving dark-suited managers with ear-piece headsets look more like Secret Service agents than members of the hospitality business.
My mood lightened for a moment when I saw the drinks list, a smart collection of artisan sake, Asian beers, fun cocktails, and good international wines. But it darkened again when I gulped at the prices: A tiny bottle of Hou Hou Shou sparkling sake, which sells for $9.99 in the state store across Chestnut Street, was listed for $45 at Pearl. And that was peanuts compared to the "bottle service" markups in the exclusive lounge upstairs, where jet-setters eagerly drop $250 for an ordinary bottle of Jose Cuervo and $275 for Maker's Mark, the entry-level choices.
So what, I wondered, was a talented chef like 28-year-old Ari Weiswasser doing in a place like this? It turns out he's cooking with integrity. And he's lending Pearl, through an impressive head-chef debut, a reason for foodies to visit.
Not that Pearl's "pan-Asian" concept exactly offers fresh turf for an ambitious young chef to roam. The menu touches every cliche in the Asian fusion playbook, from tuna tartare to miso-glazed black cod, tempura-fried rock shrimp, and calamari salad.
But it is in the execution that Weiswasser's pedigree shines through, his years in the rigorous kitchens of Restaurant Daniel, Gilt, Striped Bass and Le Bec-Fin giving new life and a little elegance to these old water chestnuts.
There is an extra succulence to the Peking duck spring rolls, for example, thanks to two duck preparations for the stuffing (involving lots of molten duck fat), a dash of sweet corn puree, and a finishing inner wrap of Thai basil that gives each bite an herby freshness.
I could do without the overly sweet miso cod and the rock shrimp tempura, which were just lesser renditions of the Morimoto/Nobu standards. The tempura-fried short ribs, on the other hand, were a stroke of scrap-meat genius. Weiswasser squares off bits from his short-rib entree, which are rubbed in Viet pho spice and braised for hours, then fries them in a flaky lace of batter. The sensation of delicate crunch on meltingly soft meat, with a silky wasabi mayo below to give it spice, is memorable.
The expert braise and an attention to the details of texture and depth of flavors are hallmarks of Weiswasser's time in French kitchens - he used to braise 500 pounds of short ribs a week at Daniel. An appreciation of top-notch ingredients also left an impression.
Giant king prawns were among my favorite stars here, poached to succulent sweetness in a court bouillon for the classic raw bar cocktail, or given a vibrant Thai touch in a tom yum soup and Asian bouillabaisse, grilled with their heads on and then steeped into creamy coconut broths that vibrated with Kaffir lime, lemongrass and spice.
Prime sushi-grade fish anchors some of Pearl's best dishes, which come with deft grace notes that are light yet vivid. Green onion jus, toasted lemongrass oil, and house-pickled kimchi transform a grilled tuna steak - is there a more overdone dish? - into something lively and bright. A flash-grilled brick of yuzu-dipped hamachi plays against the cool sweetness of matchstick-shredded Asian pear, and the musky spice of mustard pureed with nori seaweed.
The diver scallop entree featured true sea luxury, too, but was also a study in textures and shades of nuttiness, a truffled pistachio crust echoing the earthy black rice studded with the bigger green beads of snappy edamame. Pearl-sized Israeli couscous, moistened with lavender jus and sweet pea puree, accompanied a stellar rack of lamb crusted with the soft tingle of crushed wasabi peas.
There were a few misses - a sticky cashew chicken that was bland, soupy and noticeably skimpy on cashews; a $55 ginger-crusted lobster that had too much of a par-cooked chew for the price.
But for the most part, this kitchen was spot-on. And though the young service staff was a bit overprogrammed, they were pleasantly informed and efficient.
The excellent desserts may have been their easiest sell. There was a citrus-tanged yuzu cheesecake topped with rhubarb over a buttery crust of fortune cookies. A chocolate chip cookie sandwich pressed around toasted coconut ice cream was the perfect combo of warm chew and frozen cream. Chocolate-dipped bananas came with the salty Asian sweetness of a miso-caramel dip. And the cocoa pot de creme was the epitome of chocolate pudding finesse, the especially silky custard turned exotic by a spice-box foam of powdered ginger and five spice.
"What, no 'dip-sum' doughnuts?" quipped one guest, feigning disappointment that Pearl's embrace of the Asian fusion standards stopped just shy of that iconic (and much imitated) Buddakan dessert.
The insinuation was understandable, as Pearl would seem to be, at first glance, little more than a slick Rittenhouse homage to Old City's tried and true fusion scene. That its kitchen goes beyond those expectations is a credit to the chef.