Friday, December 2, 2011


Pearl Dive Oyster Palace, in the heart of Washington's rapidly evolving 14th Street corridor.
by Carol Joynt

When Pearl Dive Oyster Palace opened in September the word spread faster than a food critic could dictate notes to Siri. Among the people who ride the hot rail of food trends it was the sensation. This is a tribute to the chef/owner and to the part of town.  The owner is Jeff Black, the locale is the 14th Street corridor near Logan Circle, a once riot torn section of the capital that now inhales fresh new air with each season.  It screams youthfulness, ambition and inventiveness. In other words, “we’re not Georgetown.”

The critics did come running. Todd Kliman of Washingtonian magazine (where I work) praised Pearl Dive (headline: “It’s A Treasure”), as did Tom Sietsema of The Washington Post (“fuses funky with fancy) and all kinds of food bloggers as well as dozens of patrons on Yelp.  Chris Shott of The Washington City Paper expounded on the ends to which Jeff Black went to get the spices just right (“hot enough to spark faster sips of beer”).
Pearl Dive does not take reservations. Customers take a number and wait for it to be called. Midday rush at Pearl Dive.
The bar on a warm and sunny late November afternoon, with windows wide open.
The Pearl Dive bar is a natural for meeting up with friends, and comfortable while waiting for your number to be called.
Anchor chain over the bar.
Black owns other popular and successful restaurants in the area: Black’s Bar & Kitchen, Addie’s and Black Market Bistro, all in Maryland, and BlackSalt in the Palisades neighborhood of northwest Washington. With Pearl Dive, he pulls out all the stops on spice. If you like hotness – and I do – this is the place.

Also, oysters. Washington has long been challenged in the department of oysters. Due to proximity to the Chesapeake Bay the prevailing oyster option usually has been mid-Atlantic.
The dining room at Pearl Dive Oyster Palace.
The oyster bar in the back of the restaurant.
The oyster selection, for Washington, is extensive.
One of the many and popular booths. The wine rack. They have many wines by the glass.
A coat hook at Pearl Dive Oyster Bar.
Tile floors and bentwood chairs.
There are a number of Washington restaurants that offer oysters on the half shell, but generally they are Chincoteagues, which tend to be big on size and small on flavor. Only a few other restaurants, chiefly Clyde’s downtown and Hank’s Oyster Bar in Dupont Circle, offer a regional range of oysters. Now Pearl Dive has joined the ranks and may own the show.

The two times I visited the oyster list was long. Not New York-long, but long for Washington. Because I prefer smaller and briny oysters I chose northern and northwestern: Kumamoto, Malpeque, Island Creek and Skookum. Pearl Dive offers traditional mignonette, but also “Dive Juice,” which is green due to cilantro and lime, and a nice piquant match with the mollusks.
The Brunch menu, there's also Friday and Saturday lunch and dinner every night.
Brunch eggs with a Louisiana homage.
Brunch entrees.
Our other starters were Shrimp Remoulade with Grilled Romaine and Texas Toast, (again, nice spice), and Addie’s Mussels. I also tried the Mussels as an entrée. They are exceptional, dense with garlicky flavor and big chunks of tomato. After you’ve finished all the mussels, scoop up the leftover tomato with the grilled bread. Other entrees included a classic Louisiana Crawfish Etouffee and Wood Grilled Gulf Coast Redfish with pecan butter, and lots of pecans.  We drank Schramsberg sparkling rose and French premier cru Chablis -  both available by the glass. On request, they will bring warm cornbread. By all means, request.

If your dish is not hot enough, there’s a table caddy holding extra fire: Tabasco, Louisiana’s Pure Crystal Hot Sauce and Frank’s  Red Hot Original Cayenne Pepper Sauce. Also, a deck of cards, with trivia questions: “Are oysters good for you?” Ah, yes.
A glass of chablis in the foreground, Pearl Dive's dining room in the background. Oysters from Skookum, WA, with mignonette; sparkling rose from Scrhamsberg.
Grilled romaine with chunky shrimp remoulade that has an appealing bite.
Addie's Mussels with tomato, garlic, shallots, lemon and grilled bread.
Cornbread muffins, before.
Cornbread muffins, after.
"Pearl Fries."
Louisiana Crawfish Etouffee.
Wood Grilled Gulf Coast Redfish, with sage, pecans, pecan butter and Stone Grits.
Condiments, and a box of cards.
The dessert menu was tempting, but for another day. It’s tough on Thanksgiving weekend to be thinking about MORE dessert. We did share one slice of Key Lime Pie with Mascarpone Ice Cream. Other choices include Brazos River Bottom Pecan Pie, Rustic Apple Black Iron Pie, Pumpkin Streusel Pie, Kentucky Derby Pie and a selection of ice creams.

The room is casual but stylish. It becomes loud with a crowd and it’s usually crowded, especially in the evenings. Since Washington is a “do you know who I am town,” it’s important to note they don’t take reservations. In the spirit of southern hospitality, everyone is treated well. Meaning, you take a number and wait for it to be called. The bar is an attractive and lively spot for waiting, and there’s another bar upstairs, Black Jack.  We’ll take that on with the next visit.
Key Lime Pie with a scoop of Mascarpone Ice Cream.
Photographs by Carol Joynt.

Carol Joynt's memoir, Innocent Spouse, can be ordered from Amazon, HERE.