Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Bivouac Eats: The Black Pearl (Ann Arbor, MI)

(photo source: roadtrippers.com)

    With the exception of the occasional mind-blowing appetizer (ok, not that occasional), I generally swim upstream from any sort of seafood. Perhaps it was a childhood full of Animal Planet reruns or a brief love affair with aquariums that did it. Whatever the cause, when presented with the choice between fish and otherwise, I almost habitually choose “other”. As of last weekend, I am proud to say I live in fear no longer: on this edition of Bivouac Eats, we sit down at Main Street’s own The Black Pearl, an island—inspired eatery serving up gourmet plates straight from the ocean blue.

    I arrived around 7:30pm on a Saturday night for a seemingly impossible date night time only secured through a chance OpenTable slot reserved a few weeks prior. My date and I took our seats at a high table near one of the massive, open bay windows that make up The Black Pearl’s façade. The interior of the Black Pearl is best described as The Beach Boys in tuxedos: marble tabletops, polished wood furnishings, and a slab bar nothing short of beautiful are all offset by the woven palm ceiling fans and happy din of careless chatter found at beachside cabanas, not a “filets and martinis” downtown lounge.

    While evening breezes complement the experience something indescribable, it wouldn’t be Bivouac Eats without the food. The same smart casual combination of ease and elegance reflected in The Black Pearl’s atmosphere extends to the food in a big way: as a general theme, we ordered upscale takes on seafood staples that wowed because of their attention to detail and generally unpretentious preparation. What The Raven’s Club does for Southern comfort food, The Black Pearl does for seafood – take a simple formula, and make it extraordinary.

    I started off with an order of the Fried Calamari. Remember that whole bit about aquatic appetizers from earlier? It most certainly extends to seafood restaurants. In the case of the fried calamari, a first course staple the world over, it also means that I have some basis for comparison. A majority of the breaded and fried squid you’ll ever eat is plagued by the same few complaints: a seemingly light and snackable appetizer is weighed down with excess breading and saturated with oil from the deep fryer. Typically, ordering fried calamari is tantamount to throwing away the enjoyment of your entrée in exchange for sluggish, slow-to-digest grease and bread with a hair of shrimp thrown in to taste.
For a delicious "upscale happy hour", pair the Fried Calamari with a Cajun Corpse Reviver - a spicy take on the barroom staple that is both piquant and refreshing.   

    Someone, somewhere, hidden deep in the kitchen had the foresight to fix what was broken: emphasize the flavorful protein, cut back on the bread volume, reduce the oil, and oh yeah, pair it all with a savory garlic remoulade that emphasizes the squid rather than the standard tomato marinara. By breaking the formula, The Black Pearl creates wonder. The end result is a light, crunchy, and richly tasty bite-size appetizer sized to share for two.  In other words: it’s really, really good. Take that, road more traveled!

    Just as the world outside entered a gorgeous pre-dusk Golden Hour, it was time to order course two. I steeled myself for the decision from which I had spent so many long years conditioning myself away: I was going to get a cut of fish.

    Images of long-gone pet goldfish flashed through my head.

    Goldie would still be here if I ordered steak. Just think of how good the Coffee Crusted Filet on the menu sounds… and all the lives it would save.     

    Class trips to the aquarium, my first Jacques Cousteau documenta- wait, does that say Caramel Apple? Anxiety quelled. That sounds delicious. When in Rome, right? Thanks for nothing, memories.

    I halted my walk down memory lane to order the house special Caramel Apple Salmon while my date selected the Roasted Scallops. A short wait later, two sizzling plates of the ocean’s finest arrived at our table by the window. With sunlight rapidly fading, we dove in to our Neptune’s Bounty.

    As my salmon cooled, my date luxuriated over the first bites of the Roasted Scallops. I’ll let her say it best: “There’s no resistance but the sear. It’s literally a millisecond of ‘wow, that’s a really well-seasoned crust’ then the most tender shellfish imaginable.”

    The Caramel Apple Salmon, therefore, had a tough act to follow: who wants to go to bat after a Babe Ruth home run? Only something that can come out swinging, that’s who. The unconventional combo that caught my eye (and I’m certain by now has also caught yours) after which this dish is named brings to mind images of cider mills, lollipops, and Fall treats – a far cry from salty air and fresh seafood.

    If I’m being totally honest, I ordered this dish half out of curiosity. Grilled apples and fingerling potatoes are common sides to pork tenderloin, not a flaky salmon filet. Then, add the apple vodka caramel sauce to an already Odd Couple, and the result was guaranteed to be either madness or brilliance.

    For those of you listening to this blog entry on tape who are unable to see the fresh vegetables, buttery fish flesh, and drizzles of caramel sauce all harmonizing on the plate in front of you: it’s brilliance.

    The sweetness of the sauce; the lean, savory salmon; the boldly-seasoned fingerling potatoes and fresh veggies to mop up whatever’s left. On top of it all, the aroma of brunt sugar wafting off the salmon’s delicate glaze. The adventurous and inquisitive among you, take note: the Caramel Apple Salmon at the Black Pearl is an absolute delight to taste and to smell.

    It was now a little after 9pm, the lights inside the restaurant had dimmed, the sidewalk was packed with families out enjoying a post-dinner walk, and the glow of Main Street neon seemed to stretch on forever into the night. Our airy appetizers and light seafood entrees had left my date and I relatively less food comatose than normal, so when it came to order dessert, we enthusiastically scanned the menu together in search of the perfect finish to this evening’s meal. Her sweettooth decided on the Black Pearl Molten Cake while I selected that night’s House Made Raspberry Cheesecake, paired with a Chilled Espresso digestif.

Left to right: Black Pearl Molten Cake; Raspberry Cheesecake; Chilled Espresso

    I’d like to take a moment to recognize just how good my raspberry cheesecake was: creamy, delicate cheese served in a soufflé-style plating and covered in fresh fruit and graham crackers, I really couldn’t think of any better finish to a dinner done right. And once again, it’s relatively simple: it’s cheesecake with a raspberry topping. But the superb sweet cheese used here and made fresh in house (read: attention to detail and quality) is what makes this dessert shine.

   Why the aside? Because it was positively eclipsed by the Black Pearl Molten Cake.

    First, the presentation: every molten cake is made in-house and baked to order, so it arrives piping hot to your table mere moments after you order. The second you break the molten cake’s mantle, leathery chocolate spools out and rapidly cools when it touches the vanilla ice cream.  

    Eat a slow dinner, order whatever entrée catches your eye, eat slowly, save room for dessert, and fade into the perfection of the molten cake between sips of a Chilled Espresso as the sun sets over Main Street Ann Arbor. If you’ve never experienced a happy place, this might be it.

    The Black Pearl is at once sophisticated and relaxed, upscale and completely accessible: it’s simple food done brilliantly and peppered with nods to sunny islands far from the tundra of Eastern Michigan in a lounge ambiance that provides the best 90-minute dinner vacation I’ve had so far on Main Street. I sat in a breezy bay window, conquered my fish fears, enjoyed a wonderful date night, watched the sun set over the town I love, and discovered perhaps my new favorite dessert in all of Ann Arbor. If that’s the typical Black Pearl experience, consider that table by the window my port-of-call. I’ll be back often. 


Still craving more? Check out previous editions of Bivouac Eats as we visit Sava's RestaurantThe Raven's ClubFrita BatidosMani OsteriaAventura, and The Jolly Pumpkin!

Bivouac: Where Outdoor Passion Meets Indoor Fashion.

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