Food doesn’t haunt people, sadistic ghosts do. But you may find yourself thinking of Richard Kuo’s cooking long after you’ve tasted it at the newly opened Pearl & Ash on Bowery. From a wee kitchen outfitted with old induction burners, Kuo builds elegant, colorful small plates that often whisper of faraway places.
Slices of scallop ($6) are dusted with berbere, the African spice mixture, and served with fennel and the edible bulb of the lily flower. Tiny raw shrimp ($6) in a slightly smoky lime yogurt are sweetened with a sprinkling of bee pollen, tiny yellow granules packed together by the hive’s workers. One of the most dramatic dishes on the menu is the hanger steak tartare ($7)—a harissa-spiked crimson mash served with a bright orange pool of yolk that covers half the plate. It is rich and silky, and the shards of toast are so delicate they might break as you lift them from the plate.
Those are Kuo’s “raw” dishes, but even as you progress to the heart of the menu, you won’t find the aggressive, gut-busting, über-fatty food that New York has been putting out lately, but something a bit more delicate. Kuo’s version of meatballs ($9) are the simple and endlessly comforting Japanese kind, the pork and veal seasoned with miso and served in a sweet broth with dancing bonito flakes. Veal cheeks ($12) aren’t particularly exciting, but they come with nuggets of dehydrated black rice, both crisp and satisfyingly chewy—a technique Kuo picked up working under Wylie Dufresne at wd-50. And a standout dish of skate ($12) with smooth cauliflower purée and ringlets of leek is infused with Moroccan chermoula, and tastes of classic French fare enriched by its immigrant cuisines.
Kuo was last seen cooking beside Aska’s Fredrik Berselius at the Williamsburg pop-up restaurant Frej. The chef was born in Taiwan but raised in Australia, and came to the U.S. to work as a cook when he was 25. At Pearl & Ash, where he’s running his own place for the first time, Kuo proves himself to be a thoughtful chef with a fluency in flavors. Though not every dish on his menu is a knockout, a lot of what’s coming from Kuo’s kitchen is fun to eat and bright and beautiful to look at—so it’s a pity the room is so dark.
The ceiling is black, most of the walls are black, and throughout the evening the lights are dimmed as the music is turned up. To be fair, there’s one wall of blond-wood cubby holes filled with wildflower sprigs in glass bottles, lumps of moss, and vintage cameras—like an Etsy-addict’s bookshelf. Pearl & Ash is on the ground floor of a budget hotel, one that was converted from the stack of grim dormitories and shared bathrooms of an old Bowery flophouse. It has always been too dark and cramped in here.
Despite this location in The Bowery House, Kuo hasn’t had to give in to the usual hotel-restaurant demands. There is no burger with fries to appease the hostel crowd, for example, and so far this seems to be working out fine. A lone Japanese tourist seated next to me at the restaurant’s communal table chewed happily on pieces of quail rolled up in crisp skin, while writing notes in her travel diary.
The welcome at the front door is consistently cheerful, and service tends toward comfortable and warm, even as the restaurant gets busy. Servers resist the urge to stupidly explain the restaurant’s “concept” or push any dishes in particular your way, though if you have questions, they have answers. That sommelier in the Motörhead T-shirt, crouching awkwardly by his tables, wears a suit when he runs the wine program at the Palace Hotel. It’s Patrick Cappiello, and his wine list here is serious business—with an unexpectedly huge selection from Burgundy and Bordeaux.
Pearl & Ash doesn’t have a pastry chef, but the team manages to get around this by serving only two desserts, which each cost what a snack might from a vendor at Smorgasburg. One is a plain but rather cute Fernet-Branca ice cream sandwich ($6), flavored with just enough of the Italian bitters to please enthusiasts and set in a bendy chocolate biscuit that tastes, rather authentically, of almost nothing. It’s quite a departure from Kuo’s more complex savory dishes, but wrapped in paper and marked with a little smiley face, it’s a sweet one.