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Pineapple & Pearls reopens — and is hauter than ever

Aaron Silverman of Pineapple & Pearls. (Scott Suchman/for The Washington Post)
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Aaron Silverman vowed to “smash to the ground” the traditional fine-dining model on his way to reopening the posh Pineapple & Pearls on Capitol Hill in May.

“We’re changing everything about it except for the name,” the chef-turned-creative-director told me last fall. The transformation meant switching mottos, from “fancy not formal” to “pleasure is as worthy a pursuit as perfection.”

When he reopens Pineapple & Pearls, Aaron Silverman plans to ‘smash’ the fine-dining mold

I prepaid $325 a person to give the reimagined restaurant a whirl in June and strolled in with high hopes. Silverman is also behind the imaginative Rose’s Luxury and Little Pearl, after all, and my pre-pandemic review of Pineapple & Pearls, the crown jewel in his empire, was four stars strong, a rare “superlative” dining experience.

Initial impression of Pineapple & Pearls 2.0, aside from the steep admission price? Deja vu, thanks to a cool cloth and a glass of bubbly as we stepped inside the foyer. For a brief moment, I thought I might be in for a couple hours of memory lane-ing. Then my companion and I were ushered to our seats in a dining room rethought with myriad silver-tipped wooden rods hanging from the ceiling (disco balls for 2022!) and, closer to the chef’s counter in back, a flotilla of green balloons forming what appeared to be clouds by Dr. Seuss. We were handed a book to peruse, a collection of stories and photographs explaining parts of the meal to come. Now that’s a first. So is the arrival of an absinthe fountain and someone to fix you a Hemingway-inspired cocktail called “Death in the Afternoon.”

The printed menu is a surprise, a mere five courses with two choices per course. Anyone tired of tasting menus stretching several hours is apt to cheer the shorter script, although entertaining “gifts” alternate with the courses. First out of the gate are tall glass plinths topped with beggar’s purses fashioned from crepes colored with beet and saffron. The pouches, pumped with creme fraiche, lemon zest and shimmering caviar, come with instructions on how to eat the designer bags: mouth only, no hands. Following orders looks a little obscene, but this is part of what Silverman had in mind when he was tinkering with fine dining. The chef borrowed the idea from the late, great Quilted Giraffe in New York, whose chef-owner, Barry Wine, showed up for dinner at the new restaurant’s second week of service, returning the next night for drinks at the bar. (The cheerleader even gifted Silverman a silk bomber jacket, plates and other mementos from his famous restaurant.)

Fret not. What sounds like a gimmick turns out to be luscious, and a first course of either chawanmushi or roast squab underscores a kitchen steeped in the classics. The first, silken Japanese egg custard, is cradled in the hollow of a bamboo stalk and lavished with a little forest of mushrooms, hazelnuts and ginger. The second choice, brined squab glazed with Guinness and cocoa, summons one of those restaurants you book months ahead for in France. The elegant entree, topped with toasted pine nuts and cocoa nibs, comes with a twist on boulangère potatoes: sliced celery root paired with squab mousse. Curlicues of sauce on the plate appear to be etched by a calligrapher.

It takes a village to sustain a restaurant like Pineapple & Pearls: 35 or so servers, cooks and others to feed and pamper no more than 24 guests at a time. The owner says he sought out servers who “love hosting,” a detail repeatedly demonstrated during my visit by a cool cat named Cosmo. (Eyeing a cocktail that featured a bump of caviar on the side, he whispered, “I’m not jealous.”) Silverman gets in on the act, too. The night I dined, the chef dropped by tables with a gift of “everything” gougeres, delicate cheese puffs stuffed with pimento cheese, flecked with a spice rack of accents and plucked from a stunning Hermes platter. Ha! And more, please.

You will dream of the pastas long after they’ve slipped over your tongue. Rarely do flour and potatoes defy gravity the way the ethereal, truffle-topped gnocchi do here. Finer still is the Mont Blanc pasta, a riff on a classic European dessert in which a chestnut-oat stuffing swells housemade agnolotti arranged with a lovely sage-scented pesto. Tufts of mousse are a mound of fun coaxed from white chocolate and Parmesan cheese. Try it, you’ll love it.

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Unlike some high-end dinners, this does not feel like an endurance contest. The evening is paced so that you can marvel at the richness of grilled lobster, lit with spices including star anise and brushed with brown butter; ponder the wine in your glass (a “fancy” pairing costs $195, “extra fancy” is $500 and includes a pre-dinner consultation with a master sommelier); and wonder how the team dreamed up Époisses ice cream and Grayson cheese fondue — together in the same dish. “The right kind of stink,” our waiter said in introducing the funky, cold-hot combination, the only thing I left unfinished during what otherwise felt like a great dinner party.

Los Angeles tacos were the inspiration for an imaginative and restorative dessert hatched from pineapple tartare, coconut “snow” and ice cream flavored with chamoy, the Mexican condiment based on pickled fruit and chiles. The creation is yet another example of the restaurant’s pleasure principle at work, and how apt to enjoy it while Cheryl Lynn is singing “Got to Be Real.”

Before diners leave, they revisit the foyer, where they’re invited to help themselves to a soft-serve ice cream machine and an attendant snaps their photo with a Polaroid camera. The cool swirl goes back to the table — set with amaretto, warmed by a candle — to be enjoyed separately or with the liqueur.

The parting gifts are fun, too. A sleek goody bag is filled with elegant postcards, matches inscribed with phrases including “Always classy/Never trashy/And a little bit sassy” and a treat that can be enjoyed as a midnight snack or lunch the next day. Leave it to Pineapple & Pearls to gift us a wagyu cheeseburger.

Silverman says his team is just getting started. “This is a never-ending journey,” he told me in a telephone interview. “We have a lot of good ideas, but we ran out of time” to implement them all.

Patrons pay for the extreme pleasure. Silverman says the check average is about $525 per person. That’s a lot of dough, especially now, and I can already hear some of my audience complaining about how many groceries that might buy, or what else they would do with the money, as if consumers of fine dining can’t also be charitable. Funny how those concerns are rarely directed at people who shell out similar sums for the Super Bowl, Broadway or other indulgences, or how they fail to consider that restaurants are places of employment, and that the cost of everything has skyrocketed.

In the end, the transporting new Pineapple & Pearls is a singular sensation that I’d be willing to pay for myself — the ultimate test for any restaurant.

Pineapple & Pearls

715 Eighth St. SE. 202-595-7375. pineappleandpearls.com. Open: Indoor dining Wednesday through Saturday. Seating times are 5 to 6 p.m. and 8 to 9 p.m. Price: $325 per person, excluding tax, 22 percent service charge and drinks. Sound check: 69 decibels/Conversation is easy. Accessibility: No barriers to entry; restrooms are ADA-compliant. Pandemic protocols: Masks and vaccinations for staff are encouraged but optional.

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