Cornelia Street was quiet until the acclaimed restaurateur Rebecca Charles set up Pearl Oyster Bar, the no-reservations restaurant that brings the best New England seafood to the streets of Manhattan. Chef Charles sat down with The New Potato to talk about new restaurant discoveries, starting trends and refusing to cook with sea urchin…
Your restaurant Pearl Oyster Bar is named after your Grandmother; is there anything she cooked that you still wouldn’t try making?
Yes. Gefilte fish. It’s very hard, painstaking…you’ve got to get the details right.
And why did you choose to start a restaurant that wouldn’t take reservations?
When we opened the restaurant it was just 24 seats, and most of them bar seats, and there was only one table at the front window. It seemed silly to take reservations for bar seats. It was meant to be a seafood counter, and it wasn’t until 2003 that I bought the place next door and broke through and built tables. So now it looks like a conventional restaurant, but initially it was just this.
What’s the trick to your lobster rolls?
There is no trick. It’s just being detail oriented and knowing how to prepare food. Don’t overcook the lobster – it needs to be alive. The mix is basically like a tuna salad (mayonnaise, celery, salt and pepper); at least thats the way I like it so that’s the way I make it. Being a chef it’s two things; it’s knowing how to make good food well and having good taste. I was brought up having good taste. My Mother was a costume designer and my Grandma was an opera singer. They were both very good cooks and they were the first people I saw cook. They taught me a lot.
If you’re going to go somewhere besides your own restaurant for the best seafood where do you go?
Well I’ve always gone to Craft. It was my go-to place for seafood. If I wanted fish that’s where I went because I knew I could rely on it to be really fresh, prepared properly and whatever sides I wanted I could order. I think the concept of Craft is very appealing to chefs because you can make your own meal. That’s where I went and that’s where I still go if I want seafood. A lot of restaurants don’t treat seafood properly. They don’t take into consideration that it’s probably not that fresh when they get it. It shouldn’t be in your restaurant for more than 48 hours, that’s my feeling. And it should be properly iced the whole time. The next day I want it gone. Also, if it comes in and it’s not in good condition we send it back.