[Thoughts Inspired by Poets Before Me]
July 7, 2007
Many untold thousands of leagues
July 12, 2007

black pearl
1529 South Pearl Street
Denver, CO 80210

Rating: **

I have decided that high-end à la carte menus are crap.

My boyfriend took me out to dinner a couple of nights ago to a nice, unpretentious, boutique restaurant in the quiet WashPark area—black pearl, to be specific. Oh yes, the European glass doors were remarkable; the curiously sparse design caught my attention instantly; and yes, the service was diligent, curious, and kind. Then, we got our menus—on index cards.

Well, they weren’t exactly index cards. They were more like half-page card stock. The type was clean and crisp; the size was perfect. The offerings? Sad, to say the least.

I can appreciate a restaurant that is confident enough in its food pairing to prescribe fully coursed meals for its guests. At the very same time, I applaud the restaurant that leaves choices up to the diner; a quasi à la carte menu provides sides for an entrée, but also leaves patrons the option to pick, choose, or change accompaniments as desired. This, however, was a paltry collection of three or four entrées and as many sides. If, following the norm, one were to pair a protein with a starch and a vegetable, there should be an equal number of everything. So goes the logic, anyway. But at this fine establishment, olive green walls and industrial salt and peppershakers staring at me, I saw only two entrées that fit my wallet (tightly), while an additional decadent side would have burst the faux leather at its seams. When coupled with the prices for the proteins on their own (nearing $20 apiece), I didn’t feel so much in need of “frites” to balance out nutrition.

Please don’t misunderstand my moanings; the chicken I had was wonderful. Tender, juicy white meat soaked in rich truffle butter—there’s hardly any way a sophisticated diner would swat it off the table. Still, I eat out to enjoy company, and, of course, quality cooking. Yes, prescriptions already entrenched in menu tradition might need a bit of change—or deletion. I do feel, however, that if one is going to take the time to be a culinary maverick, they should set the stage a bit, warm up their audience to the idea of rebellious dining. It could easily suit a fair number of adventurous eaters, but it has to be done slowly, carefully, and with tact. Don’t hand me an index card menu with 10, out of balance à la carte choices and expect I’ll be satisfied.

The wine, meanwhile, was offered by the glass (across the wine list), but with a curious footnote: “We proudly pour 1/4 bottle per glass. Minimum of four glasses.” I took this to mean (without pursuing it with the sommelier) that, in fact, all wines were only offered by the bottle. It was bad enough that they teased me with single glass options; don’t make me an ass by forcing me to clarify a ridiculous note buried on the fourth page of your wine list. Needless to say, I enjoyed my water.

Much to the restaurant’s credit, the food was quickly prepared and gracefully served. I won’t give black pearl many points for presentation; haphazard attempts were made, but most were over-eager demonstrations of socles (food mounted on food for height variety). My chicken came mounted on a sad little collection of greens, bathed in a delightful truffle jus (the butter melted in, presumably); a side of Gorgonzola caprese followed shortly after. Both were delightful, even if the chicken overwhelmed the garnish-sized portion of greens and the tomatoes used for the caprese were too thickly cut.

Overall, there’s little to say in favor of black pearl. I wish I could give it greater praise, but it leaves so much wanting. The décor, while comfortable, might have been the first to need improvement; I desperately wanted some eccentric art to warm up the dining room, though my boyfriend found the minimalist approach quite refreshing. Bonzai trees and odd plants dotted the furniture of the upstairs and downstairs, while strategically placed lighting cast the outline of tree branches on ceilings and walls. A nice touch, if somewhat ambiguous in its design purpose.

I will say that black pearl suffers from what so many restaurants do—on all levels of quality and sophistication. Seating is minimal, both inside and out; the designers sought to bring as many patrons in to restaurant as humanly possible. As a result, my boyfriend and I were cozied up next to an older couple for 10-15 minutes; they were within an easy arm’s reach, and certainly audible. We were so close, in fact, I probably could have nabbed a sample of their appetizer without really reaching. Intimacy at that level precludes conversation; no one wants to talk seriously about anything if they feel everyone around them can hear what they’re saying. Especially if the conversation turns into “one of those serious talks.”

I leave you with this, a token in favor of bp:

I am generally averse to seafood. There are notable exceptions, many of which are fish, but I tend to have problems with the textures of sea creatures. Shrimp have never been on my favorite food list, and more exotic dishes often turn me ill. I’ve never been able to eat octopus or squid; please don’t even mention the outrageous concoctions made with the likes of jellyfish, mussels, or other jiggly, watery bile. It’s all just too much for me to handle.

My boyfriend, however, is quite a fan of calamari. Never having had a tasty squid in my life, I am forever hesitant to steal a bite from an appetizer plate, even if offered to me. Black pearl, however, managed to convince me that squid—if nothing else that comes from the sea—can be beautifully prepared and is just as tasty as high-class chicken fingers. The seared and seasoned baby calamari didn’t even resemble the tubular creatures I was used to seeing; flat, tender, and dripping with peppered oil, they seemed like a good candidate for an appetizer. Letting one slowly slide across my tongue, I bit into it with a fair amount of trepidation; I remembered the tough, chewy texture that turned me away so many times before. Much to my surprise, it severed cleanly, melting on my tongue as the final peppery kick hit my taste buds. My boyfriend asked if I wanted more. It was the first time in my life I ever said yes to a second helping of calamari. Kudos to black pearl for making me a convert.

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