(out of 4 stars)
1529 S. Pearl St., 303-777-0500, www.blackpearldenver.com
The Draw: Patio with fire pit, interesting wines, and creative New American fare
The Drawback: At times, flavors are overwhelming, and service is inconsistent.
Don't Miss: The deconstructed clam "chowdah;" mussels with frites; Tuscan rib-eye; rack of lamb; grilled romaine with white anchovies
Vegetarian Options: Shishito peppers with sesame; mac and cheese with truffle; pappardelle with mushroom and arugula
As I sit next to the massive windows at the loftlike Black Pearl, I glance down at the wine list. In front of me is a fitting quote from Napoleon Bonaparte that reads, "In victory, you deserve Champagne; in defeat, you need it." There are many moments that I'd like to raise my glass to the chefs at the Black Pearl for their innovation and talent. But there are other times when I sip on bubbly simply to move on from dishes that took New American innovation just a bit too far.
At the helm of this casually upscale kitchen is a partnership between sommelier and proprietor Steve Whited and chef Sean Huggard. The two opened Black Pearl on South Pearl Street in 2005, and added Encore Restaurant on Colfax Avenue in December of 2007. The duo met at the Summer House, a highly successful fine-dining venue in Nantucket where Whited was co-owner and Huggard, a CIA grad, worked as the chef de cuisine and later executive chef.
Together, the pair have created a bustling neighborhood venue in Black Pearl—one that hits the same urban vibe as Table 6, with a similar ambience and a focus on creative, wine-friendly food. Add to that a chic patio, the centerpiece of which is a flickering fire pit positioned at the center of a modern, concrete community table. The patio's allure tempts people (often those waiting in line for a table at Sushi Den just down the street) to sit down for a drink or step inside for dinner.
Once inside, however, it's evident that a few front-of-the-house issues need attention. First, on busy nights, the noise level can be deafening and personal space is nonexistent, particularly around the bar. In addition, Black Pearl's tables and chairs perched on the well-worn plank flooring wobble back and forth, sometimes making it difficult to completely relax. Service also needs attention, with some servers doting and well-versed while others are nowhere to be found. Black Pearl's vibe is casual, but that's no excuse to let service slip—the promise of Huggard's cuisine and the rustic romance of the earth-toned space simply isn't enough to compensate.
Dishes at Black Pearl are as contemporary as the ambience, with clever presentations and an ever-changing menu that features local produce as well as seafood that's flown in almost daily. Huggard easily describes his kitchen's earth-friendly practices that emphasize "reducing, reusing, and recycling," but he stumbles a bit when he attempts to explain the focus of his cuisine. "It's food that's hard to describe. It's not too trendy, but not boring either. It's real food, but not necessarily with flavors that you see all over town," he says, appearing more at ease cooking his food than describing it.
Perhaps as a result of this nebulous focus, Huggard and his chef de cuisine, James Rugile, seem free to tweak the menu, adding and subtracting dishes according to the freshness of their products. When both chefs keep their flavors reined in, they perform at the top of their game—the deconstructed clam "chowdah" ($8) is a perfect example. Served in its own crock, the well-rounded chowder base showcases cream touched with mild heat, bacon, and chives. A tiny copper pot arrives alongside, brimming with tender littleneck clams steamed in their own broth and hints of white wine, garlic, and butter. The soup's straightforward flavors and determined restraint, coupled with its innovative deconstruction, have made it a popular starter.
Huggard also demonstrates his finesse in other seafood appetizers. His classic mussels with frites ($11/$16) are superb in a broth made slightly sweet with Pernod. A generous handful of crispy, salty frites perched on top of the dish adds depth—and reason to dip into the broth long after the mussels are gone.
Also outstanding is the chile-fried calamari ($10), prepared in a refreshing twist that begins with a whole steak of squid cut into large, paper-thin squares. The squid is then dredged in cornstarch and quickly fried to a golden brown, and accented with a kung pao-like sauce with chile, soy sauce, scallions, and pistachios.
Other simple starters deserve equal kudos. Mildly hot and salty shishito peppers ($7), fried whole with a touch of sesame, make an addictive first course, as does the comfy mac and cheese with truffle ($8) or the grilled romaine salad with white anchovies, roasted garlic, and Caesar dressing ($7). Pass on the "boring salad" ($8), however, which arrives drenched in roasted garlic dressing.
Despite an emphasis on fresh seafood, when it comes to entrées the meat dishes are far superior to dishes that feature fish. The Tuscan rib-eye ($23) is a true standout with a smoked, black pepper-rubbed one-and-a-half-inch cut that's perfectly cooked and rested, accented with a slight tang of balsamic, and enriched by a buttery breadcrumb crust. The rack of lamb ($25) is also noteworthy, with cleanly frenched chops coated with a well-seasoned herb crust and accompanied by a creamy cauliflower purée accented with a drizzle of curry oil.
However, despite chef Huggard's New England upbringing, his fish dishes are often carried away by too many flavors. The tuna entrée ($22), for example, features the bold flavors of onion that take over the plate and overwhelm the fresh fish. Likewise, the spicy tuna and pear appetizer ($11) is so laden with ponzu sauce that the freshness of the tuna is lost.
The harissa gnocchi ($16) is an oddly composed dish with fried gnocchi (that resemble tater tots) served on a bed of spaghetti squash doused in a pasty basil crème sauce, and garnished with fried artichoke chips. The result is a dish so laden with fat that even a crisp, acidic wine would have a hard time refreshing it.
Luckily, there are many wines to choose from. The list, which won a Wine Spectator award, is bursting with variety, with many boutique wines chosen carefully from smaller producers such as Casa Barranca and Varner Wines. California wines dominate the list, but both New and Old World wines are represented and all are described in a user-friendly format that makes choosing a wine as much fun as drinking it.
Desserts are equally fun and consistently impressive with unfussy, straightforward flavors. The cheese plate ($14) works as a perfect finale, with samples of Gorgonzola, Morbier, aged Gouda, Brie, and fresh goat cheese paired with a dollop of organic honey. The cakey white and dark chocolate brownie bread pudding ($6) also succeeds, with rich cinnamon-walnut ice cream.
As a whole, the Black Pearl offers enough excitement on its menus to warrant a visit. Although Chef Huggard can be overly ambitious, this young chef will surely make his mark on Denver, particularly if he can rein in flavors and make the main ingredients shine. In many ways, the restaurant is best experienced through its innovative small plates and exciting wine list—and we're confident that Black Pearl will continue as a great date night or a casual wine club destination.