Many folks were surprised when Richmond Restaurant Group shuttered the seemingly successful deLux at Main and Strawberry streets in the Fan. The owners changed the bar and lounge formula to a restaurant with a stronger focus on food. They renovated the interior and redid the menu, and after a few months Pearl Raw Bar was born.
The new interior separates the upstairs from the downstairs, and with different entrances they've functionally created two separate restaurants, albeit with the same menu. Upstairs retains the lounge atmosphere, complete with velvet and leather seating, low lights and dark colors. Downstairs is divided in two, with the back half featuring garagelike doors that open to the outside. Light-filled and sparsely decorated, its clean décor reflects the simplicity of a raw bar concept. The front half of the room is a little darker and more intimate.
On one evening's visit, I overhear neighboring diners comment that Pearl's menu is the same as the company's Carytown spot, the Water Grill. They're partly right. Many dishes appear on both menus, including buffalo fried oysters and cast iron filet mignon. But Pearl's offers far greater variety. Including sliders, sandwiches, wide-ranging hors d'oeuvres and entrees, it's almost guaranteed you'll find something whether you're out with picky children, conservative meat-and-potatoes-loving grandparents, or more adventurous foodies.
A good place to start a meal is with one (or more) of the Chesapeake oyster shooters ($3-$5). A raw oyster and cocktail sauce are topped with alcohol — either Allagash white beer or vodka — and seasoning, and served in a shot glass. The bacon ($5) is particularly good, with bacon vodka, Bloody Mary mix, and a brown-sugar and salt rim combining to create a complex sweet and briny mixture with a nice alcohol burn.
Oysters are on the menu in many forms, including a sampler of a dozen raw ($20.95). Three kinds of oysters with a range of saltiness and size are served with mignonette, horseradish and Tabasco sauces. Oysters also are the stars of the oyster po' boy ($9.95), where perfectly fried oysters are drizzled with chipotle aioli, which adds subtle heat, and nestled in a sub roll. I'd like to quibble with the use of a soft sub roll for a po' boy, but so few Richmond restaurants use proper New Orleans french bread for this style sandwich, it feels unfair to critique. The buffalo fried oysters ($8.95) are another star, with house-made, buffalo-style hot sauce and blue cheese dressing covering the plate and making a rich and slightly spicy dipping combination.
Moving to the entrees, the pan-seared salmon ($16.95) is a disappointment, mostly because the salmon is perfectly cooked a medium rare, moist and flavorful, but is drowning in a mediocre sweet chili sauce that tastes straight from a bottle. The blackened fish tacos ($14.95) likewise are almost great, with mahi-mahi well paired with a corn salsa, red cabbage slaw and chipotle aioli. Unfortunately the blackened fish is too mildly seasoned and the portion of fish too small to stand up to the toppings and the tortillas, rendering the fish almost invisible on the palate.
Straying from seafood choices reveals a kitchen that handles an impressive breadth of dishes with skill, even while most aren't particularly memorable. Sunday brunch offers standard fare, as well as some specialties such as the red eye Benedict ($10.95), a substantial dish that combines sausage and gravy with poached eggs and sausage patties. It's rich and indulgent, but the buttery biscuits, milky gravy and rich eggs could use something to cut the heaviness. The avocado terrine ($8.95) is smashed avocados molded into terrine shape, surrounded by black bean and corn salsa, and served with tortilla chips. The fancy name and presentation belie the straightforward flavors of chips and dip.
My recommendation is to stick with seafood. For brunch the crab omelet ($9.95) is worthwhile, with goat cheese and asparagus nicely balancing the sweetness of the crab. Pearl Raw Bar is best at executing straightforward seafood. Ironically, many restaurants and home cooks concoct sauces to hide their inability to correctly cook delicate seafood. Pearl has the opposite problem — its sauces and accompaniments detract from the kitchen's ability to expertly prepare what should be the star of the show: fresh seafood.
I'm sure that Pearl's will find an audience because of its wide-ranging menu. And I'd guess that's part of Richmond Restaurant Group's plan, because it already has three seafood-centric restaurants: two locations of the Hard Shell and the Water Grill. Next time someone invites me to Pearl, I'll gladly go and stick with the simple, straightforward seafood dishes it does best. S
Pearl Raw Bar
2229 W. Main St.
Monday-Friday: 4 p.m.-2 a.m.
Saturday-Sunday: 10:30.a.m.-2 a.m.