Most restaurant reviews focus on just one part of the dining experience: the food. But just as important as the food is everything else: branding, interior design, service, music, and overall vibe. An exceptional dining out experience is one where all the senses are engaged, not just the taste buds. Find out which restaurants have the “taste” to meet our standards (and which ones don’t).
Hungry for Design’s authors are Susan Battista and Fritz Klaetke—partners in both work and life. By day they run Visual Dialogue, a branding and design firm where Susan leads strategy and Fritz leads creative. By night, they can be found sharing meals (and opinions) at restaurants all over Boston and beyond.
Pearl & Ash
lower east side, new york
Butchers, bakers, furniture makers
Pearl & Ash: a neighborhood favorite in NYC’s Lower East Side
We traded Boston’s 70+ inches of snow this past weekend for New York’s sub-zero wind chill (we definitely need to go a lot further south next time). When the weather presents challenges like the ones we’ve endured in the Northeast this winter, you come to appreciate the convenience and comfort of a favorite neighborhood restaurant: a place that’s close to home with reliably good food that brings you back week after week. Sometimes, you’re lucky enough to find a neighborhood place that doubles as a destination—one where all the details are considered.
Last Saturday night, our neighborhood was the Lower East Side, where some of the most interesting new restaurants are opening. Our destination was Pearl & Ash, located on Bowery Street across from the New Museum and on the same block as our favorite, mysterious, graffiti-covered building (which recently sold for $55 million—a sign that the gentrification march continues unabated.)
Your first impression of a restaurant doesn’t come from your first mouthful—it comes from what you see when you walk in. Companies like AvroKO (see our review for Beauty & Essex) and Roman and Williams (see our review for 27 Restaurant) understand this and have capitalized on it masterfully. These firms have established their reputations as NYC’s best and others are following their lead.
A new firm has come onto the scene, and it’s not another group of architects and interior designers. Instead, the people behind the design of Pearl & Ash are furniture makers by trade. Parts + Labor Workshop, a firm that produces bespoke handcrafted furniture and architectural millwork, and their interior design arm, Sway Design Collective, created the space.
Pearl & Ash’s warm, intimate atmosphere is the perfect respite from the frigid temperatures and hustle and bustle of the city. The space is a classic, narrow layout with a bar along one side and seating along the other that extends to the back. It’s dark and intimate thanks to simple yet carefully designed lighting, including decorative oil tea lights—hundreds of them. A beautiful chandelier constructed of off-the-shelf, copper plumbing pipes creates a nice focal point above the large communal table in the back, and backlighting on the bar adds to its soft glow. The vibe, made complete by a great mix of tunes, was relaxed and inviting.
Skilled carpenters were clearly at work on this interior. Streamlined custom benches, barstools, and tables made from blond wood contrast nicely with steel plate floors throughout. Another interesting design feature, decorative concrete blocks that look like the supports used in 1960s carports, form creative partitions and bar accents. Our favorite piece of craftsmanship, however, is the custom fitted collection of display boxes that line the walls. Wooden frames of varying sizes and depths are filled with found objects like flowers, wine bottles, kitchen gadgets, and wallpaper. Their visual appeal reminds us of Joseph Cornell’s assemblage art.
While food is usually not the focus of our reviews, we’d be remiss not to give Pearl & Ash’s outstanding fare a little more attention than usual. The restaurant serves small plates, which our waiter described as having “pan-Asian and global influences.” We were advised to order three or four per person, so our party of four tried (and thoroughly enjoyed) just about everything on the menu.
A mix of seafood, meat, and vegetable offerings from Chef Richard Kuo featured intriguing combinations of ingredients and textures. We sampled dishes like Skate with brown butter and chimichurri; Eggplant with zucchini and mint; Hamachi with jicama, ricotta, and arugula; Arctic Char with beets, cipollini, and Swiss chard; and perfectly cooked potatoes with porcini mayo and chorizo. We particularly loved the Octopus-sunflower-shiso dish and the Mussels which incorporated curry-soaked pumpernickel bread. We finished our meal with a chocolate cherry almond cake (which embraced the de-constructed dessert trend we’ve been noticing lately) and a Negroni ice cream sandwich—in a wrapper that brought a smile to our faces.
For all the thought that went into Pearl & Ash’s interior design and food, the branding seems a little neglected. We think the name references pearl ash or potash—used as a leavening agent before the development of baking soda—but it doesn’t stand out in the sea of trendy something & something monikers. While the simple typographic logo is fine, it isn’t particularly memorable. The website looks more like a placeholder than a final product. It lacks strong design, engaging copy, and lifestyle photography—and the mobile version seems broken. When the owners open their next restaurant (rumor has it that one is in the works) we hope they’ll work on building a brand, too.
But all in all, Pearl & Ash is a small, unpretentious destination where care and creativity influences everything from food to music to service and design. It proves that restaurants don’t have to be fancy or over the top to deliver a great experience. In fact, it’s a lot like a handcrafted piece of furniture: solid, beautiful, and built to last.
We could easily imagine ourselves becoming regulars at Pearl & Ash. Maybe we can pick up one of the condos going into that building on the corner (but only if they leave the graffiti on it).