Little Pearl chef B.J. Lieberman has created a gravlax sandwich that's an homage to the Swan Oyster Depot, the historic seafood counter in San Francisco where the kitchen layers cured salmon on a slice of sourdough. It's a lovely nod to the city's famous bread.
“It plays to my Jewish sensibilities,” says Lieberman, who will split chef duties between Little Pearl and its sister restaurant, Rose's Luxury. “It's like a mix between a Jewish bagel and San Francisco. I’ve been dying to do our own version of that.”
And so he will. When Little Pearl opens Dec. 16 in the former Bayou Bakery space, Lieberman will introduce his take on Swan's gravlax sandwich to the coffee shop and wine bar, a greatly expanded version of the tiny daytime shop that debuted last year at Pineapple and Pearls. Lieberman's version will feature cured Scottish salmon, crème fraîche and pickle fennel, all made in-house. Only the sourdough will be sourced outside Little Pearl's walls.
If this doesn't sound like your standard-issue coffee shop and wine bar, consider the source: Chef Aaron Silverman and his team, the same folks responsible for the four-star Pineapple and Pearls and three-star Rose's Luxury. Little Pearl will make its own pastries, sandwiches, gelati and snacks to pair with your single-origin coffee or your bottle of boutique wine.
Lieberman is the acting head chef at Little Pearl, but he will be surrounded by other talents: pastry sous chef Jameela Hassan; general manager Kristen Carson; manager/sommelier Kerstin Mikalbrown and Rose's Restaurant Group's director of operations Andrew Limberg, who will both help assemble the wine lists; head sous chef Benjamin Mihal; Pineapple and Pearls pastry chef Kim Janusz, who makes the gelati; and head barista Jamie Waltz, who will lead the coffee program.
Janusz has been testing out gelato on her colleagues: She has been offering samples of her latest flavors on Friday mornings, which has quickly become the staff's favorite time of the week. Little Pearl is expected to open with six of Janusz's gelati, including tiramisu, pretzel, toasted rice, Thai iced tea and a vegan offering made with cashew butter.
“She did some funky stuff,” Silverman says. Future flavors may include a riff on Fernet, the herbal, bittersweet Italian amaro.
Little Pearl occupies the former carriage house of the Old Naval Hospital, the Civil War-era property that was transformed six years ago into the Hill Center, an arts, cultural and education facility. Bayou Bakery chef and owner David Guas, a history buff, accentuated the building's past with antiques, period curios and Civil War illustrations from Harper's Weekly.
Silverman and company have designed a more contemporary space, an echo of the shimmering minimalism of Pineapple and Pearls on Barracks Row, but within the limitations of a historical building that allows only so much renovation. The color scheme is mostly neutral, Silverman says — think black, white, walnut and concrete, but with playful splashes of color underneath some of those tones.
The building also comes with its limitations in the second-floor kitchen: There's no walk-in refrigeration, and there are only a few refrigerators and a freezer to store perishable foods. What that means is Little Pearl will basically have to restock its larder daily, breaking down meats and vegetables as soon as they come in the front door, then storing them in refrigeration.
“We don't have any options,” Silverman says. “We have to make it work.”
Despite the drawbacks, Little Pearl plans to offer a fairly robust cafe menu (see below). It'll include a breakfast wrap of potato, egg and Gruyere in a masa tortilla; fried chicken (either spicy or Japanese-style); a glazed Morning Glory puff pastry infused with espresso and orange zest; a sweet potato and turnip tart; and hot churros with a spicy chocolate dipping sauce.
At first, the coffee program will not geek out on pour-overs, siphons or other tools of specialty shops. Instead, it will focus on more traditional offerings, such as espresso-based drinks and drip coffee. Little Pearl will, however, offer specialty drinks like an iced banana latte, coconut nutmeg latte and affogato, with either house-made banana or cashew-butter gelato.
Silverman is not ruling out coffee pour-overs and other geekery in the future.
The wine bar is not expected to open until two weeks after the cafe debuts. Its menu remains a work in progress, but it's expected to feature between 12 and 16 snacks, divided into two general categories: simpler preparations with lower price points, and more refined ones with higher price tags. The wine list will run about 75 bottles and will include about 25 by-the-glass options.
“It's not that you couldn't make dinner” out of the snacks, Silverman says. “But we're not trying to do app-entree-bread-dessert, that whole thing.”
Little Pearl, 921 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, in the carriage house. 202-618-1868.