Food critic

This review appears in The Washington Post’s 2018 Fall Dining Guide as No. 2 on a list of the year’s top 10 restaurants.


Garden daiquiri made tableside at Pineapple and Pearls. (Tom McCorkle /For the Washington Post)

No. 2. Pineapple and Pearls

(Superlative)

If you want to stay at the pinnacle year after year, you need to find ways to stand out from the pack. Few chefs do that as wonderfully and whimsically as Aaron Silverman, whose fine-dining destination on the Hill continues to set the bar not just locally, but for the country. You come in off the street to be handed a fragrant thick cloth to wipe your hands, followed by a little aperitif, its rim “garnished” with a tiny envelope containing the recipe for the drink you’re enjoying. Then, it’s a series of just-the-right-size, expertly paced courses in the sleek dining room, some introduced by the cooks who made them. Rice for sushi is molded with spoons at the table, after which the pads are brushed with housemade chile sauce and topped with foie gras. Exquisite. A dry-aged French breed of duck is trotted out, whisked away and returned as spice-crusted slices, rich as squab and loftier in the presence of steamed brioche hiding duck confit in its center. Liquids are taken as seriously as anything else; mid-dinner might showcase a “garden daiquiri” created with liquid nitrogen and served with luscious cocktail snacks. Did you know smoked potatoes and dates make for a first-rate pasta, that sunchokes and bitter cocoa play well together in pudding? Pineapple and Pearls makes believers out of skeptics. Because you’ve paid for the night in advance, there’s no bill to break the spell, just some bon bons in a tiny treasure chest and a goody bag to take home. The unbaked chocolate chip cookie inside (with baking instructions) is the only head-scratcher of the night. Otherwise, reality is fantasy.

4 stars

Pineapple and Pearls: 715 Eighth St. SE. 202-595-7375. pineappleandpearls.com.

Open: Lunch Monday-Saturday, dinner daily.

Prices: Prix fixe $150-$325.

Sound check: 72 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.

The Top 10 restaurants of 2018:

10. Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly

9. Little Havana

8. Three Blacksmiths

7. Spoken English

6. Momofuku

5. Maydan

4. Himitsu

3. Centrolina

2. Pineapple and Pearls

1. Del Mar

--

The following review appeared in The Washington Post’s 2017 Fall Dining Guide as No. 2 on a list of Tom’s top 10 restaurants.


The visuals bring Aaron Silverman’s innovative dishes to life. Here, shrimp, stone fruit and XO sauce dance in a decadent bowl. (Deb Lindsey /For The Washington Post)

2. Pineapple and Pearls

(Superlative)

You don’t see a menu till dinner is over. Thus every course is a surprise, notably the introductory “Afternoon Tea,” a tiered tray on which sit snacks that look sweet but taste savory. That canele? It’s rich with foie gras. The tiny tuile? It clutches sorrel and trout roe. Meanwhile, the accompanying gin-and-rhubarb cocktail is served in a delicate tea cup. Ha times 10. The visuals make you smile and the flavors make you grateful for Aaron Silverman, the innovative chef who pushes the fine-dining cause in only exquisite directions. “Breakfast for dinner,” announces a server as she drops off a three-bite, melt-in-the-mouth omelet in a room that has cool written all over it. Shrimp nestled in a Nordic soapstone bowl with juicy stone fruit and spicy XO sauce is one of the year’s best unions. A later pasta course gives diners a choice of three luxury toppings: sea urchin, black truffles or paddlefish caviar. The kitchen also shows international flair with a squash blossom taco set on kicky white mole, and slices of warm pecorino cake that incorporate “pesto without the garlic” ice cream. Since you pay before you play here, dinner ends not with a bill but with a goody bag, a note from the staff and a list of all the memories you just made.

The Top 10:

No. 10 Sfoglina

No. 9 Salt Line

No. 8 ChiKo

No. 7 Tiger Fork

No. 6 Bad Saint

No. 5 Métier

No. 4 Minibar

No. 3 Himitsu

No. 2 Pineapple and Pearls

No. 1 Inn at Little Washington


Pineapple and Pearls "Afternoon Tea" features sorrel & trout roe tuile (top), foie gras canele (bottom left and right) and kohlrabi and walnut roulade. (Deb Lindsey /For The Washington Post)

Warm pecorino cake with pesto ice cream is a comforting conclusion to the playful lineup on a recent visit. (Deb Lindsey /For The Washington Post)

---

The following review appeared in The Washington Post’s 2016 Fall Dining Guide.

The best steakhouse in town these days is the last savory course on the menu of this avant-garde dining destination on Capitol Hill. Just taste the extraordinary rib-eye and cap, carved from a dairy cow (the next big thing?) and flanked by a bevy of accompaniments, including 40-layer cubes of potatoes, creamed parsley as opposed to spinach, and a warm popover filled with buttery mushrooms. That’s the magic of chef Aaron Silverman and friends at Pineapple and Pearls, sibling to the no-reservations Rose’s Luxury nearby. They’re constantly taking the familiar and improving on it, or doing something daring yet delicious. What looks like a box of fried chicken highlights a sweetbread-stuffed chicken wing, and what your eyes register as a dessert tart is eggplant caponata strewn with tangerine lace (aka marigold leaves) and garlic chive blossoms on a fine crust veined with lemon thyme. Ever sipped a cocktail from an oyster shell? You might here. Don’t count on any of these dishes to be around should you splurge on the $250-per-person (drinks, tax and tip included) extravaganza. The chefs, who double as servers, are forever tweaking their performance, which right now happens to be the premier example of fine dining in the country.


The extraordinary rib-eye and cap, carved from a dairy cow and flanked by a bevy of accompaniments. (Goran Kosanovic/For The Washington Post)

---

The following review was originally published Aug. 1, 2016.

Pineapple and Pearls review: Dining so fine, we’re seeing 4 stars from the start

Five courses into dinner on Capitol Hill, a server places a small wooden box in front of me and opens the lid to exhibit some bread: pain au lait, a glorious cross between a biscuit and brioche. I’m poised to reach for a piece when my steward, with the flourish of a magician, extends the box sideways, unveiling more treats on two swinging shelves. One is sour cherry compote. The second is a scoop of foie gras mousse nuzzling toasted hazelnuts. “Try them separately, then together,” the server says, and I follow suit.

The bread, spiked with cracked black pepper, goes down warm, flaky and wonderful.

The fruit broadcasts summer.

The mousse reveals the richness of liver and the texture of a cloud.

Imagine, then, the trio in unison.

Heaven? Close. I’m at Pineapple and Pearls, the alluring new neighbor of no-reservations Rose’s Luxury, sibling restaurants brought to life on Barracks Row by native son Aaron Silverman. Two years ago, Bon Appetit hailed the older retreat as the Best New Restaurant in America. Since April, the spinoff has been redefining what it means to be a fine-dining restaurant.

You remember fine dining. Not so long ago, luxury venues placed their bets on shaved truffles, high thread counts, wine lists that could double as doorstops and petits fours with the bill.

At Pineapple and Pearls, Silverman erases that depiction almost completely. Caviar is deployed only once, in a riff on chips and dip. Tables are absent of linens. Cocktails are grander than any wine, dear as its producer might be, and the tab is settled before you even arrive. (The bill — $250 per person in the intimate 20-seat dining room — covers tax, tip, drinks and more than a dozen courses. Think of your time here as lofty dinner theater, “Hamilton” for the taste buds.)


It’s a safe bet you’ve never seen a bread service anything like what you’ll find at Pineapple and Pearls. (Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post)

Silverman says ideally he would have done some research ahead of opening, checking out exemplars of fine dining in the United States and abroad. Intense focus on his second baby kept him local. In the end, he says, “maybe we didn’t need to eat” elsewhere, but “go on our own idea of what fine dining should be.”

I’m glad he went with his gut. Because the aforementioned bread course is one of many singular moments at the restaurant (by night) and coffee shop (by day) that takes its name from the fruit that symbolizes hospitality and the lustrous orb that signals luxury. Silverman briefly considered “Pineapple and Diamonds” but figured diamonds would sound “too pretentious.”

“Would you like a welcome cocktail?” a host asks when you check in for dinner. There are always three options; knowing Jeff Faile is behind them makes choosing difficult, although the heat of summer is beaten back with every sip of a Kir Royale chilled with cassis granita.

The former spirits maven for the Neighborhood Restaurant Group and some of the District’s top dining venues (Fiola, the late Palena), Faile has a knack for reading his guests’ thirsts. Among the gems on the printed cocktail list is the simply billed Tequila, which introduces the spirit to fresh grapefruit juice and gewurztraminer, followed by grenadine, an accent that gives the cocktail the appearance of a sunset. Request the Japanese Sazerac and you get a different show, as its maker uses an atomizer to spray a flute with absinthe, hammers a chunk of ice into shards, pours whiskey and soda over the ice in the glass and stirs the highball 13 times.

New Orleans, be afraid.

Your first solid bite, Fennel & Absinthe Bonbon, could pass for art. An edible sphere filled with yogurt rests on a silver absinthe spoon, poised over a flute of fennel juice, green apple, celery and more. Pop the orb in your mouth, sip the juice and go ahhh. On the snack’s heels comes a single stalk of poached asparagus that’s been dipped in pineapple jelly and dressed with snips of country ham held in place with dots of aioli. The spear is simultaneously vegetal, fruity, meaty and darling, but not so precious that you wouldn’t gladly have another, and another.

The arrival of a mother-of-pearl caviar spoon sets a diner up for something divine. “Roasted potato ice cream,” a server introduces. The dish is garnished with thread-fine potato crunchies and flanked with a spoonful of prized osetra. The mind reels. Ice cream and sturgeon roe? “Remember when you were a kid,” says a waiter, “and you dipped your french fries into your milkshake?” Guilty. That the two still go together, in more sophisticated fashion, is a surprise, right up there with the fact this restaurant isn’t open on Saturday night.

Even if you’re not perched at the kitchen counter, a seating option here, you’ll get a chance to talk up the chefs, who double as waiters for a few courses. Egg drop soup is one of them. Picture a hot flame beneath a copper pot of Parmesan-thickened consomme, to which an egg yolk is added. The thin golden lava is then poured into a little bowl of seasonal herbs and vegetables. A few stirs with a spoon and you’ve got a liquid salad.


Thai red curry is served from a coffee siphon, and passes over coconut rice and fried enoki mushrooms. (Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post)

More dramatic is a chef bearing a coffee siphon through which a spice-packed red curry and fish broth passes over lemon balm, coconut and toasted shrimp heads on their way to becoming the last of the savory courses. Staged with fried enoki and aromatic coconut rice, the spectacle is a Thai thriller.

Who says fancy can’t be fun? “P and P,” as the staff calls it, revels in entertainment. As I watched a bartender smack! some fresh herbs between her hands to release their fragrance recently, her colleague turned around and cracked, “Get it! Don’t take no for an answer!”

Lest the restaurant sound like a circus, the newcomer honors tradition as much as it tweaks it. Consider its nod to sole Véronique, fish fillets in a cream sauce with green grapes. Here, the classic is reimagined with fluke and grapes that are sliced thin enough to read through, then applied to the fish as “scales.” Lusher still is the pool of pureed chamomile, sorrel and parsley beneath the fluke. If I were to see the presentation at Le Bernardin, arguably the finest seafood restaurant in the United States, I would not be surprised.

While each new dish vies to be my pet, delicate sweetbreads tucked into deboned, double-fried chicken wings is first among equals. Talk about breaking the rules! The golden treat comes not on a plate but in a white carton, with rousing dips of watermelon hot sauce and lime with roasted garlic.

Thoughtfulness insinuates itself everywhere: the nearly weightless utensils, the free-flowing chablis, the twist on finger bowls. Instead of lemon and water, servers pour fragrant jasmine tea over a bowl with flower petals and a nickel-size white cloth that unfurls to become a wet wipe against which all future hot towels will be judged.

Your experience may not match my memories, at least dish for dish; Silverman and friends, including head chef Scott Muns, formerly of Rose’s Luxury, are constantly adding ideas to their lineup. “We do it,” Silverman says, “because we get bored” otherwise. It’s an admirable feat, given the thought and time expended on each recipe. Here’s wishing the hot chocolate souffle, part of the opening menu, a long run. The classic dessert, rich with Valrhona chocolate, is offered with honeycomb ice cream veined with shards of crispy buckwheat.


Drinks are a la carte if you eat at the bar. (Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post)

There are several ways to experience the establishment for less. A white leather stool at the teak bar is yours for $150, a bill that covers the same food in the dining room save for the drinks, which are offered a la carte. By day, the entry to Pineapple and Pearls is a cheery coffee bar, set off with a chandelier, and the source of some of the finest breakfast sandwiches around. (Go for fried chicken, all crunch and sass and juice.) By night, the four tables on the front patio are made available to cocktail enthusiasts beginning at 6. TaskRabbit, brace yourself for calls from wannabe drinkers hoping to score the single table that’s first-come, first-served.

For occupants of the dining room, Nordic in its cool beauty, there is no check to detract from the evening. There are, however, some lovely parting gestures, including a to-go bag with iced coffee, pistachio shortbread and a small box of single-bite doughnuts in different boozy flavors. I hate to burst anyone’s bubble at this point, but the doughnuts, tasting more of yesterday than today, consistently pale in comparison to everything that’s come before. They are, however, a forgivable lapse in an otherwise enchanted evening. (This is a crew that never lets you see ’em sweat. During a recent brown-out, the lights dimmed, but the food and service never let on that anything other than fantasy-fulfillment was happening.)

Silverman and his colleagues aren’t merely tinkering with fine dining, they’re enhancing its image. Right out of the gate, their good intentions and heady results call for trumpet blasts and standing ovations. I can only fantasize what future visits might bring. For now, Pineapple and Pearls is a superlative restaurant — dare I say world-class? — and worthy of as many stars as I can give.


Chefs Scott Muns, left, and Aaron Silverman in the kitchen at Pineapple & Pearls. (Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post)