First Look: The Pig and the Pearl

There's plenty to like at the new Atlantic Station smokehouse

It's easy to like the Pig & the Pearl. Oh, it's true that the Bible instructs us not to cast pearls before swine, but you'll go happily to hell after a meal of raw oysters and smoked pork at this new restaurant from Cindy Shera and Todd Martin, owners of the Shed at Glenwood. They are joined by executive chef Todd Richards, who also heads the Shed's kitchen.

The Pig & the Pearl, located in part of the defunct Geisha House space at Atlantic Station, was designed by ai3. The firm has glamorized and abstracted iconic looks of barbecue joints and oyster bars. Featuring wood, brick, metal, vast windows, a high ceiling, and space that flows easily outside to a patio and back into the kitchen, the restaurant is, to use ai3's own description, "ruggedly airy."

There's a raw bar here, but, on the meat side, the Pig and the Pearl is more accurately termed a smokehouse than a barbecue restaurant. The owners have installed two state-of-the-art, wood-fired Southern Pride smokers. Richards explains that meat smoked at comparatively low temperature is not usually called barbecue, which requires higher temperatures. So, you're not going to find the intense "bark" that traditional barbecue lovers go crazy over.

This gets pretty confusing until you study the menu and put your tongue to work. Fish, which you don't find at barbecue joints, is on the smokehouse menu. Gentle smoking, contrary to what you might think, causes the flavors to bloom more strongly than almost any other way of cooking. Scallops, Richards observes, reveal their salty-sweetness with greater clarity. You'll get similar effects in gently smoked salmon or trout, respectively seasoned with ancho chile mole and preserved lemons.

Pork and brisket, smoked at higher temperatures, definitely invite the barbecue description. But you'll note that the three barbecue sauces on the table are quite mild, including the one labeled hottest. More than heat, they add a vinegary effect. There's a reason for this choice. Richards uses basically the same rub on all the meats (poultry included) — combining sea salt, ginger, and chili powder — but the method of preparation and cooking temperatures produce varying effects. The pork, for example, acquires a sweetness that makes a ketchupy sauce unthinkable. Thus the vinegary, slightly mustardy sauces temper the sweetness in a fatty slab of the pork shoulder. And Richards will gladly provide more mustard on the side if requested.

Those globs of fat in the slightly charred pork shoulder were a bit much for me, but we all know that preferences in barbecue range as broadly as DNA (outside Appalachia). My dinner companions actually noted, unprompted, that they loved the melting fat. Interestingly, Richards does not remove meats from the smoker and keep them hot. He cools them entirely, so the flavors and juices settle. Then he carves off slices, which he grills when ordered. I'm surprised more of the fat isn't rendered away.

Brisket was, alas, strangely dry and hugely fatty at the same time. Smoked chicken wings were shockingly huge and free of tiresome Buffalo seasonings. Instead, they were coated in a tangy soy vinaigrette. Juicy pulled pork on Texas toast was, again, headily smoky and subtle. The one definite no-go was my lunchtime open-faced sandwich of burnt ends over pimento cheese. The ends were super-dry and the cheese was little more than melted cheddar.

Most starters have, as is often true at new restaurants, been more perfected than entrees. My favorite has been a jar of creamy pork rillettes — reminiscent of liverwurst to a German friend of mine — served with sweet but pickled peaches and crispy cornichons. A generously chunky lobster salad with a tarragon dressing was a bit oniony, while smoked deviled eggs over caponata riffed crazily and wonderfully on the theme of farm-to-table dishes.

Sides are served in gigantic portions, as are most of the meats. Sugar rules. Creamed corn was mainly whole kernels popping with sweetness. Ditto for Brunswick stew "pot pie" and the "baked beans," which were actually coveted Sea Island red peas. Don't get me wrong. The ingredients — especially the red peas — are true to their own flavors. But the sugar gets to me after a while. The exception: beets with candied ginger – sweet and hot, a perfect aphrodisiac.

Speaking of sweet, a ridiculously rich bourbon banana pudding with housemade vanilla wafers and marshmallow meringue should never be eaten by one person alone. I did it, but it's my job. I loved it. A lunchtime pot de creme sporting brulee is a less nuclear option.

I haven't written about the P&P raw bar because it's not especially unique, but it is indeed a pearly gate to a great meal here. The oysters, from prestigious neighborhoods, were too perfectly briny and faintly sweet for more than a drop of lemon. Tuna sashimi, Hamachi, and snapper tartare are served with dots of ponzu gelee and soy emulsion, as well as pickled ginger. You may encounter wasabi roe, pickled daikon, and micro shiso garnish. This sublime fish is of a type we seldom encounter on our dying planet.

Whatever glitches I found after five weeks are minor in such an ambitious undertaking. We've seen what Richards accomplished at the Shed and look forward to hurling lots more pearls before the smoky swine ... and fish, chicken, duck, and beef.

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