No Foams, No Nonsense: Pearl Dive’s Jeff Black On Appeasing Neighbors And ‘Straight-Forward Rustic Cooking’
How did chef Jeff Black smooth things over with Logan Circle neighbors protesting his liquor license? "Well, we gave them what they wanted," he says. "It was the easy thing to do."
Black had planned to provide a small porch area for smokers at his forthcoming Pearl Dive Oyster Palace on 14th Street NW. "It was the smallest legal opening to still be considered outdoor," he says. "It was basically just an over-sized window and it had screens on it and a smoke eater. It was just a place to smoke and not put your drink down." Neighbors weren't having it. "They thought it was going to be like Marvin, you know, this huge rooftop scene."
Black eventually gave up the smoking porch. And he agreed to close an hour early, too, though that part was a bit easier to forgo. "I was at Current Sushi at last call one night," he recalls. "And I looked at my buddy and said, 'I don't want the last hour. I really don't.' It's all drunks that got kicked out of another bar, or it's the scumbag trollers looking for drunk chicks. I don't mind giving it up."
The protests were ultimately dropped—and without him having to sign one of those restrictive voluntary agreements. "I'm the only one in the neighborhood [without one]," he says proudly.
Now, he's putting the finishing touches on the $2.43 million building in time to host a charity event this coming Saturday, as well as the restaurant's official grand opening, slated for Sept. 20.
The place was still under construction when Young & Hungry dropped by on Thursday for a sneak peek. A few things I noticed: Getting seated will work very similar to getting your driver's license renewed at the DMV: take a number and wait for your digits to appear on the big board mounted to the wall. You can also play bocce while you wait at one of two indoor courts that Black has installed upstairs. And, instead of a cigarette machine, the upstairs bar area called Black Jack will feature a similar-looking contraption dispensing small artworks for $5 (pictured left).
Oh, and the signature cocktail will feature ice smoked in a sausage smoker, then infused with peach nectar, doused in smoky mezcal and garnished with prosciutto rolled into the shape of a cigar.
Now, about the food: Black tells Y&H that his new oyster-themed restaurant isn't trying to encroach on fellow mollusk mogul Jamie Leeds' turf. Though Pearl Dive is located just a short walk from Leeds' acclaimed Hank's Oyster Bar, Black suggests there's a world of difference in between them.
Style is one thing. "Hank's tends to be more Northeast style," he says. "Ours is much more Southern-influenced."
Then there's the whole neighborhood divide. "I was actually on the phone with [Washington Post food critic] Tom Sietsema....I said to him, 'What do you think about an oyster bar in Logan?' This was his comment: Logan is Logan and Dupont is Dupont." Point being? "A lot of people who live in this neighborhood, they don't like to go over to Dupont," Black says. "I don't think we're going to infringe on each other too much."
That said, the chef-owner behind such celebrated seafood spots as BlackSalt on McArthur Boulevard, Black's Bar & Kitchen in Bethesda and Addie's in Rockville, is pretty clear on who he thinks shucks the best oyster in D.C.
Why, he does, of course. "I personally feel that I do oysters better than anyone else in the city," says Black. "We get the freshest. We handle 'em correctly. We don't cut the meat. We cut the adductor muscle. We don't pierce 'em. They're properly shucked. Every oyster we do is inspected by the kitchen."
At Pearl Dive, Black expects to have anywhere from six to nine varieties of oysters available daily, served on the half-shell and plated several other ways, too, such as an oyster confit with blue crab, tasso ham, roasted corn and Hollandaise for $9. Other menu items include Vietnamese pickled shrimp for $10 and a crawfish-tasso ravioli for $13. The biggest ticket item: hanger steak with melted blue cheese and potato puree for $26.
"It's not real sophisticated," Black says of the overall menu offerings. "There's not going to be any foams or any of that nonsense. It's good straight-forward rustic cooking. In terms of how it will stand out, I mean, there are a lot of great restaurants on this street. I'm not trying to have more wines than Cork, or more beers than ChurchKey. What I'm trying to deliver is the best service at a very reasonable price and what I think is just great quality stuff."
Photo by Chris Shott