After it closed suddenly, the chefs went their separate ways. Bersilius re-opened in the same Williamsburg space, this time with a serious full-time restaurant called Aska. It’s quiet, austere, verging on formal, and still Scandanavian. It could get a Micheln star.
They’re on OpenTable, but the bulk of the seats are first-come, first-served. The dining room is beyond 100 percent occupancy. They’re squeezing folks into every square inch that the law allows.
On a Wednesday evening, we arrived early for our reservation, with no tables vacant and two-deep at the bar. The host sent us next door to cool our heels, a dive where cocktails are something like $8 each. When our party of four was finally seated, it was at a half-communal table with about as much legroom as the coach cabin on a budget airline.
Sommelier Patrick Capiello landed here as wine director and partner, after Gilt closed late last year. A greater contrast between the two restaurants couldn’t be imagined. Nevertheless, he’s built a list that his former uptown customers would recognize, even if they’re unlikely to visit. It’s studded with trophy Burgundies and Bordeaux that most three-star restaurants would drool over.
The risky gambit worked. The economy has improved, and if you’re looking for proof, you might as well start here. I don’t know who would order 1955 Château Palmer Margaux 3ème cru with this food, but apparently someone does. That’ll set you back a cool $1,000, and it’s not even the most expensive bottle.
I’m not in that league, and if I were I’d choose to drink it elsewhere.
But you can easily do business for under $60 a bottle, and even as low as the mid $30s. I always smile when I see wines from the Jura, and under-appreciated region many restaurants don’t stock. At Pearl & Ash, there are 19 whites and a dozen reds from there. The 2008 Philippe Bornard “Ploussard” (above right) from Arbois Pupillin, the Jura’s winemaking capital, was just $52. Served chilled, it tasted like a cross between red and rosé, well suited to the eclectic menu here.
The menu offers twenty items ($3–16) in six categories: raw, small, fish, meat, vegetables, sweet. If you want bread, it’s extra: $3. The seven meat and fish items can be super-sized and ordered as entrées ($24–28), in which case Pearl & Ash becomes a traditional three-course restaurant.
We went all-in for sharing. Typical of such places, it was tough to guess exactly how much food we needed, or which plates would be readily divisible, but we got it about right. The kitchen did a reasonably good job of timing and sequencing (good!) but plates and silverware weren’t replaced between courses (not so much).
Each item on the menu is a short list of three or four ingredients in lower case, without adjectives or verbs. I’ve quoted these descriptions below, to give a better idea of what’s confronting you when you order. (The party next to us offered several suggestions, which turned out to be excellent.)
We loved the hot, musky smoke of “octopus, sunflower seed, shiso” ($13; above left). But it also meant that bland “tea cured salmon, goat cheese, tamarind, seaweed” ($10; above right) barely registered.
We placed a double order of “pork meatballs, shiitake, bonito” ($11 a pair; above left). The dish seemed under-sauced: the rich flavor of the meatballs needed some extra kick. The “lamb belly & heart, kohlrabi, hazelnut” ($26; above right) tasted mostly of fat.
The hit of the evening was “quail, almond, pomegranate, chicken skin” ($28; above left), a technically impressive preparation of deboned quail wrapped and deep-fried chicken skin. I also loved the flavor of smoke (much like the octopus) in “skate, chermoula, cauliflower, leek” ($14; above right).
If you’re up for a side dish, you won’t go wrong with “potatoes, porcini mayo, chorizo” ($8; below left), served crisp with just the right amount of salt.
There are just two desserts, and both are a bit odd. The “coffee parfait & cake” ($7; above right) is better than it sounds, with only the slightest hint of coffee.
But the “fernet-branca ice cream sandwich” ($6; above) is more interesting than good. Fernet-branca is a digestivo invented in the 1800s as a stomach medicine: pepto bismol with alcohol. A member of our party who’d tried it straight, said that it’s barely tolerable to drink. In ice cream it’s acceptable, but nothing I’d rush back for.
The dining room is a long, narrow room with an open kitchen at the back. The walls seem to amplify sound, as the speakers go thump, thump, thump. The wall opposite the bar is an attention-stealer, a lattice of differently-sized blonde-wood cubby holes filled with candles and nick-nacks.
The friendly, eager staff do their best to keep up, but there are too many of us, not enough of them, and too little space for everyone. The food (at its best) is good, and the wine list is great. As long as they’re served in this room, I won’t be rushing back to try either one.
Pearl & Ash (220 Bowery between Prince & Spring Streets, NoLIta)
Food: An eclectic selection of vaguely pan-Asian small plates
Service: Friendly and eager, but struggling to keep up
Ambiance: A loud, narrow room, with an attractive modern design