The following review is part of The Washington Post’s 2018 Spring Dining Guide Top 10 countdown.
5. Little Pearl
Beaming servers present the small plates as if they were gifts. “Angel eggs,” says an attendant as he places a couple of light-as-air morsels on the table. Flavored like deviled eggs, they have an ivory exterior made of meringue that disappears the moment it hits your tongue. “Anchovy toast” is translated as a cushion of honey wheat toast swabbed with fish butter and carpeted with minced dill and other herbs. Meanwhile, smoked eel suspended in a little block of aspic might be preceded by a chef who grates fresh wasabi onto the plate. More, pretty please? The wit and the wonder behind each dish should come as no surprise; Aaron Silverman, the chef who brought us the no-reservations Rose’s Luxury and the glam Pineapple and Pearls, is behind this gem, a sunny cafe by day and a dreamy wine bar by night. Composed mostly of snacks, the evening menu also includes a top-flight burger, a fan of mussels and gelato churned on-site. My current preoccupation is the salty pretzel flavor. Just like Little Pearl, it’s cool and addictive.
Little Pearl: 921 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. 202-618-1868. littlepearldc.com.
Open: Breakfast, lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday.
Prices: Daytime items $3 to $12., dinner mains $16 to $17
Sound check: 72 decibels / Must speak with raised voice
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The following review was originally published March 14, 2018.
Little Pearl is the easiest route yet to Aaron Silverman’s whimsical food
If you’ve always wanted to try Rose’s Luxury but didn’t want to wait in the inevitable line, I have a worthy alternative for you. If you’ve been curious about Pineapple and Pearls but were intimidated by the price of admission — $325 a person, beginning in April — the same option applies.
Little Pearl, ensconced in a carriage house on the grounds of the Hill Center at the Old Naval Hospital, is a cafe by day, a wine bar by night and the most approachable idea yet from chef Aaron Silverman. He’s the James Beard Award-winning chef whose pork with litchis at Rose’s helped put him on the culinary map and whose flights of fancy at Pineapple and Pearls stretch the notion of fine dining in all the right ways. Little Pearl is the distillation of what makes its Capitol Hill siblings special — hospitality, imagination — at a cost that fosters inclusion. It’s almost as if Silverman scribbled his game plan on a cocktail napkin: orange wine, oysters and a chill ambiance for everyone!
Little Pearl is not entirely new, having existed in the foyer and on the patio of Pineapple and Pearls, but its menu was brief and limited to daytime. Surely anyone who sampled the original’s fiery fried chicken sandwich, among other indulgences, could be expected to want more room and longer hours.
The reincarnation, surrounded by fence and lawn, is more attractive in every way, starting with the fact that it takes reservations. A series of three rooms on the ground floor, it opens with a counter, where pastries are set out in the morning and stools alight at night. A middle room, dim but cozy, retains the grain feeders of the onetime stable. In the back is a conservatory with a tented ceiling, communal table and dreamy vibe no matter the hour, a feeling nurtured by glass walls that invite the outdoors in. The new spot, formerly home to Bayou Bakery, is also a wish fulfilled for Silverman, who had originally sought the space when he was opening Rose’s Luxury.
Ah, the daytime menu. Little Pearl recognizes that some of us like to walk a sweet path in the morning while others prefer more-savory routes. In addition to impossibly light potato doughnuts, dusted with sugar, and warm apricot bread pudding, freckled with orange zest, there are sandwiches to cover just about any appetite, from gravlax with house-made creme fraiche to smoked brisket. The most intriguing is a taco of creamy scrambled eggs and crunchy fried potato rolled up in a fragrant corn tortilla, accompanied by wispy chiles and verdant salsa. Described by the staff as “like a quiche” is a buttery little tart enclosing juilenned sweet potatoes and turnips, their surface carpeted with caramelized onions cooked to the color of licorice.
During the day, orders are placed at the counter, where your name is written on a little black sign that you take to your table, instead of a number on a stand. It’s a little detail that, like the weighty copper-colored utensils or the soundtrack you wish could accompany your life, remind you of the thought behind every aspect of your meal. Dinner introduces staff who take your order and make wine fun. With luck, sommelier Kerstin Mikalbrown might drop by to suggest a chardonnay that tastes like “an exotic spring break,” a glass to get you excited to try more wines from Macedonia, or a Sicilian red to pair with barbecued eel captured in a jiggly block of aspic. A bit of an acquired taste and an example of Silverman’s fascination with Japan, the dish presents like Jell-O made savory with mirin and white soy sauce and garnished with peppery nasturtium leaves.
Snacks make up the majority of the dishes on the dinner menu, but it’s easy to make a meal of them. Keep in mind that the term “snacks” understates the variety and quality advanced by chef BJ Lieberman, 34, who divides his time between Rose’s Luxury and here. Thus a request for oysters yields briny models from Chef Creek in British Columbia, splashed with a froth of buttermilk and speckled with dehydrated kumquat, at once acidic and floral. The oysters are arranged on overturned shells and a bed of salt in a black stone bowl: stark on dark and very much in keeping with the aesthetic here.
Some plates give upgrades to familiar foods. How to improve on Cheez Whiz? Kraft should do itself a favor and check out Little Pearl’s saffron-tinted squiggles of cheddar and onions, which decorate a large cracker made with biscuit dough. Along for the ride: crisp diced apple, fresh thyme, some jalapeño, each topping playing off the other.
A few dishes look as if they drifted in from one of Little Pearl’s brethren. Plenty of places offer steamed mussels. Little Pearl goes the extra step of arranging the bivalves so they create a starburst in their bowl, a warm pool of saffron cream dappled with herbed oil. Is it my imagination, or is even the accompanying toasted baguette of a finer crispness than the competition’s?
Little Pearl being Little Pearl, the restaurant churns its own gelato. Toasted rice gelato rewards diners with its delicate nutty flavor and pleasantly chewy texture, but tiramisu is also sublime.
With fewer than 10 small plates on the evening list, there’s little margin for error. And it takes effort to find any. The handsome hamburger, its patties shaped with brisket and dry-aged strip loin, is a mess to eat, and I have the dry-cleaning bill to prove it. Bite down on the shiny brioche bun, and out slide the contents: Russian dressing, cheddar cheese, snappy pickles — pretty much everything a Big Mac aspires to be. If there are two of you ordering food at the small white tables in the back dining room, chances are there won’t be sufficient space for your meal.
Service is in the Silverman style: smart, friendly, confident but never arrogant. “I haven’t looked at a résumé in three years,” says the chef-owner, who interviews everyone who makes it through initial conversations with his team. The question that has to be answered in the affirmative by the staff, he says, is “Do we love that person?”
His choice of verbs is revealing. Little Pearl brims not only with memorable food and drink, but with uncommon passion.