You can eat some of the finest, and most expensive, seafood in the world in New York City, at restaurants like Le Bernardin and Oceana. What interests us more, though, are places like the Pearl Oyster Bar, a casual joint in the same urban spirit as the Swan Oyster Depot in San Francisco or the bar at The Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station.
The Pearl is tiny. One side is the bar itself, and there’s also a newer adjoining dining room. The bar is the fun place to be. Your “bartender” will pour wines and beers, but this is really a place to eat, not drink. Tell the bartender-waitress what you’ll have and, a few minutes later, you’ll be dining on first-class seafood.
The owner, Rebecca Charles, spent many a summer in Maine, and Pearl (named after her grandmother) specializes in the simple classics of the Maine summertime coast. The steaming dish of clam chowder is perfect, in large part because it doesn’t try to be anything more than great clam chowder; no lemongrass accents, no diced chorizo, no chefly reinterpretations beyond treating this like real food, not beach grub. Prepared by people who know how to cook, and using good ingredients like fresh clams and potatoes and good bacon and cream, this is the kind of chowder you long for, clammy and lightly creamy, and a little smoky; a balanced chowder.
Pearl Oyster Bar is locally renowned for its lobster roll, and for good reason. The toasted bun is lavishly buttered, the freshly cooked, cool lobster meat is tender, not chewy, and full of fresh lobster flavor, and it’s luxuriously mayo’d. You won’t find the enormous chunks of lightly dressed lobster that you’d encounter at Red’s or Kennebunkport’s Clam Shack. This is more a cold lobster salad roll, and it compares favorably to similarly styled rolls up and down the Maine coast. An enormous pile of dark, crisp, salty shoestring fries comes with.
There’s a lot of other seafood to choose from (not by any means all New England-centric), such as the various roasted and grilled fishes, raw clams and oysters (of course), whole lobsters and scallops and mussels, and beautiful crunchy shrimp in either a cocktail or served “salt-crusted,” meant to be eaten shell and all. Homey desserts are available, some made with that quintessential Maine fruit, the blueberry, some made with outstanding local ice cream.
This is the sort of comfortable place, serving high quality seafood, we’d visit constantly if we lived in the area. The catch is this: the bar is small, and enormously popular. There are no reservations, and a long wait for a seat at the bar is to be expected. One way around this is to queue up about ten minutes before Pearl opens. You should be able to snag one of those precious counter seats as soon as you’re inside.
Note: Ms. Charles has written a particularly interesting cookbook/autobiography. You can get a copy at the restaurant (and, of course, at bookstores).