Young and Hungry

The Pearl Piquant Help It

Pearl Dive Oyster Palace: D.C. Chef Jeff Black Turns Up the Heat

For all the Cajun-Creole-themed cooking going on inWashington these days, you’d think the city would see a sudden spike in capsaicin overdoses. Not so.

The stuff that generally passes for New Orleans-style fare around here would barely register on the Scoville scale. To put it mildly, so to speak: My first bowls of gumbo and crawfish étouffée at Pearl Dive Oyster Palace would have been entirely forgettable, except for their unforgettable lack of heat.

Thankfully, I’m not the only one who noticed.

“When we opened, there were a lot of dishes that I thought weren’t spicy enough,” says chef and owner Jeff Black.

A subdued stew runs counter to the restaurant’s whole raison d’etre. “I want people to think it’s going to be spicy,” Black says. “I don’t want ’em coming in thinking it’s going to be timid.” For weeks, Black has been hounding his kitchen staff to amp up the piquant. “I started sounding like a broken record,” he says. “I’d say, ‘It’s not hot enough.’ Everything I tried. ‘It’s not hot enough.’”

The gumbos, for example, were initially touched up with a blend of Crystal and Tabasco hot sauces. It led to a little lingering background heat, Black explains, but no immediate punch. Lately, though, his cooks have been scaling back on the Tabasco and adding more jalapeño to the mix in the hopes of a stronger first taste. “Finally, I looked at Danny [Wells], my chef de cuisine, and said, ‘We did it—it’s too hot!’” he laughs. “So we racheted it back down.”

Pearl Dive Oyster Palace: D.C. Chef Jeff Black Turns Up the Heat

My most recent bowl of the chunky soup, swimming with oysters, shrimp, and diced ham, suggests that Black and company have finally struck the right balance: hot enough to spark faster sips of beer but not so scorching to justify the $3 fee for a refill on bread.

“A lot of times you get beat up,” says Black. “‘They hate this, chef.’ ‘Way too spicy, chef.’ And you start to alter the way you cook. When I hire guys, I tell them, your cooking needs to be assertive, it needs to reach up and grab somebody. Subtle is fine, but subtle is what everybody else is doing. Let’s have a dish that just grabs a hold of somebody and then when they leave, they think, I want to come back and have that. Instead of, ‘Oh, that was pretty good,’ and then they can’t remember they ate.”

At Pearl Dive, the dish I found most grabbing would be the braised pork cheeks appetizer, priced at $9. Dusted with flour and seared, the meat is then braised in ancho chipotle, mirepoix, and veal stock for four to five hours, Black says. Served with grits and topped with fried onions, it’s a solid combination of creamy, rich, and crunchy. It packs some nice heat, too. The zesty flavor snatched my attention on first bite and had me coming back for seconds a few nights later.

The Vietnamese pickled shrimp, on the other hand, was the most non-grabbing of dishes. The $10 appetizer reflects Black’s admirably broadminded view of the culture of his native Gulf Coast—where Vietnamese cuisine has become enough of a staple to shape the culinary tastes of non-Vietnamese chefs like him. But this particular item has a problem: It’s not very pickled.

Served fried, the cured crustacean is supposed to taste sweet and spicy beneath its crunchy coating. I gave it three tries on three separate nights and found it virtually indistinguishable from the common battered butterfly variety. The only noticeable difference: a bed of super-spicy slaw underneath, which Black also uses in bánh mì during Sunday brunch.

Pearl Dive Oyster Palace: D.C. Chef Jeff Black Turns Up the Heat

If the menu reflects the old and the new of the Gulf Coast, the act of getting seated is strictly D.C. Snagging a table works a bit like having your license renewed at the Georgetown Park DMV branch: Give your name to the receptionist and take a number, then wait for your digits to appear on multiple screens mounted around the establishment. Fortunately, the waiting area includes a bar—two, actually. The more intriguing one, a somewhat separate (but uniformly owned) concept called Black Jack, is upstairs. It has its own distinct food and drinks menus, including a vastly more diverse, and more pleasing, selection of beers than the actual restaurant downstairs.

The signature cocktail is called “The Cigar,” featuring a heavy a dose of mezcal, chilled with a block of ice curiously prepared in an andouille smoker, then refrozen and infused with peach nectar. The cocktail tastes sweeter the longer the ice is allowed to melt. While I was fascinated by the icy element, my friend couldn’t get past the garnish: a slice of prosciutto on a stick that kept sliding around the rim with each sip. “The meat keeps smacking me in the face!” she cried.

Pearl Dive Oyster Palace: D.C. Chef Jeff Black Turns Up the HeatOnce your number comes up, you descend from the dimly lit lounge back into the bright white walls of the main restaurant. Chilled oysters are a must—they’d better be, given the joint’s name. Pearl Dive offers between 12 and 15 varieties, a vastly bigger selection than rival Northwest D.C. mollusk mecca Hank’s Oyster Bar (six per night) or even renowned oyster hotspot Old Ebbitt Grill (eight per night). “We’re going through probably 7,000 to 8,000 oysters a week,” Black says.

The choices are so abundant that Black now has staffers categorizing the things by flavor profile—“from mildest all the way up to Belon, which is the biggest, fullest, mineral-y, in-your-face, suck-on-a-copper-penny flavor profile you’re ever going to get,” he says.

The bulk of the selection comes from the nearby Chesapeake Bay, but the meatiest ones, I find, are from the West Coast: If the server mentions Naked Roys or Skookums, get ’em. Black’s house-made “dive juice” dipping sauce, made daily with scallions, cilantro, and jalapeño, nicely compensates for any stragglers.

Among the four styles of the cooked oysters, the Angels on Horseback, at $9, is my favorite. Wrapped in thinly sliced applewood-smoked bacon, the pillowy oysters arrive in a vin blanc and vinegar reduction that is both rich and a tad tart; the bacon is so thin as to not overwhelm the oyster. I found the tasso ham of the Tchoupitoulas variety to create the opposite effect.

Pearl Dive Oyster Palace: D.C. Chef Jeff Black Turns Up the Heat

If the place were open for breakfast, Black’s C.E.B.L.T. po’boy would become my morning ritual. The sandwich features fried catfish topped with a fried egg and salty bacon procured from every pork gourmand’s favorite farmer, Allan Benton. “The key is, you gotta push it down,” Black says. “You push it down and the yoke runs through it.”

But for dinner, despite the restaurant’s theme, you’d be ill-advised not to order the fried chicken. It’s a sort of makeshift recipe that the cooks at Black’s Rockville restaurant Addie’s used to throw together to feed the dishwashers, incorporating braised chicken normally reserved for coq au vin. “We’d take that braised chicken, dust it, flour it, and fry it,” says Black. “Well, one day, I was like, ‘You know what? That looks pretty good. I’m going to try it.’ And I was like, ‘Holy crap, this is freakin’ delicious!’”

Pearl Dive Oyster Palace: D.C. Chef Jeff Black Turns Up the Heat

At Pearl Dive, Black doesn’t use red wine as he might with a traditional coq au vin; instead, he braises the meat in white wine, blond mirepoix and chicken stock. “It’s fully cooked, so when you order it, all I’m doing when I fry it is, I’m setting a crust on it. So it’s not in the fryer for very long.” The crispy crust is quite spicy—there’s a lot of cayenne in there. And a bit of Parmesan, believe it or not. The collard greens it comes with are pretty damn tasty, too. And not so bitter. “I don’t add vinegar, which a lot of people do,” Black says. “I just let it be. You can cook that bitterness out if you cook ‘’em long enough.”

When dessert comes, a woman at an adjacent table suggests Black needed to spend more time cooking off the booze. She’s eating the bourbon-infused pecan pie made with wild Texas nuts—a standard, sticky, sweet version of the southern classic. My neighbor claims to be “getting high” off the liquor. Later, when I ask Black about it, he suggests she must have been a lightweight. “There’s not that much [alcohol],” he says.

Photos by Darrow Montgomery

Pearl Dive Oyster Palace, 1612 14th Street NW, (202) 986-8778

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