Slipping and sliding

Enjoy the skaters, avoid the food at Pearl Street Bistro

One of the best things about dining at Pearl Street Bistro is the surrounding scenery. Tucked downtown in the Plaza of the Americas and occupying the space that was once home to Trattoria Amore, Pearl Street is within shouting distance of the plaza's ice rink.

Ice rinks are standard equipment these days in many public spaces. NorthPark Center slipped one in a tent next to the parking lot this winter. The Galleria has one right in the mall. Even Prestonwood--that ghost town of a mall that will soon be razed to make room for more high-rise office buildings--has an ice rink.

I'd forgotten how much fun it is to watch other people slide around like bumper cars with shorted wiring. We saw a sinuous fortyish fellow in his underwear twirl, skate backward, and finish his Lutzes on the seat of his boxer shorts. Another gentleman dressed in a flannel shirt and jeans leaned hard into his potbelly, which was crowned with a belt buckle the size of a hubcap. His gut provided natural cover for his feet--a good thing, as I don't think he would have been able to concentrate if he could have seen the spastic toe- and heel-work happening beneath him. A tiny girl in a gold lame tutu was getting a firm lecture from her coach, a guy who looked as though he couldn't pull a pair of skates past his corns and bunions.

The only drawback to this whole episode was that you had to dine to the same music that bathed the rink, which after a few probings of the menu actually proved appropriate. With French doors, green patterned carpet, green textured paneling, yellow walls in rag-attacked textures, tables cloaked in white with numbers printed on strips of paper sandwiched between the tablecloth and the glass tabletops, Pearl Street is to bistros what Vanilla Ice was to rap.

Pearl Street is a modestly priced, casual Italian restaurant with mix-and-match pasta (choice of pasta, sauce, and meats), plus veal, beef, chicken, and seafood creations. Executive Chef Robert Brown says plans call for a transformation of Pearl Street's menu into what he describes as "Italian-eclectic," a collection of mostly Italian dishes supplemented with other ethnic cuisine. From there the menu will be regularly reshuffled some three times a year.

My first indication that this was going to be more of an assembly-line feed rather than a presentation of good, cheap Italian grub struck with the delivery of the bruchetta. Instead of toasted bread, its core was bland, stunted, pontoon-like dinner rolls around a glass dish filled with chopped Roma tomatoes accessorized with basil, red onion, and Parmesan. The chewy, halved rolls were brushed with butter that tasted as if it had been parked next to something suffering from a case of refrigerator BO. While this was not the only problem with the menu, it thankfully represented its deepest plunge.

Pearl Street's house salad, an arrangement of fresh lettuce and juicy tomato, was dressed in lively, clean vinaigrette with none of the off-putting sweetness that sometimes infects these dressings. The house-made minestrone, however, was blase--slightly tangy, yet flat with an off metallic flavor on the finish.

Oblong meat-filled ravioli were slathered in a fresh, brisk marinara. But the thick ravioli--claimed to be fresh--were gummy and filled with mealy meat paste.

Gambari fra diavolo, shrimp cooked in a spicy red sauce served over linguini, had dry shrimp with a slightly soapy taste struggling in a sauce of marinara jolted with chili peppers and herbs. But the sauce had none of the lively dimension found in the ravioli coating and had precious little to offer other than spice heat.

The linguini alla carbonara had al dente pasta in a filmy sauce rendered from a heavy cream reduction. There was little taste to break free from these textural shackles, plus, it was speckled with stuff that resembled chopped pancake-house bacon rather than authentic pancetta.

Pearl Street's vitello (veal) piccata seems to suffer from the same afflictions that decimate this dish more often than not: less-than-fresh meat in a sauce painfully out of whack. Traditionally made from veal pan drippings, butter and lemon, the piccata sauce should be satiny smooth. This was, but a surge of lemon knocked the flavor hopelessly off course and all but crushed the taste of the meat, which was perhaps a blessing, because what peeked through was off.

The wine list was underwhelming, even for a modest place like this. By-the-glass offerings were limited to a Chilean Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet, with no Chianti or Pinot Grigio to complement the Italian fare, although there were a few Italian wines by the bottle.

Friendly, if painfully disjointed and distracted, Pearl Street's service is hard to understand. On one visit, our server slipped away just as we were in the midst of a dinner order. She didn't return for several minutes and asked us where we left off. (Wasn't she writing this down?) On another, our zuppa di cozze appetizer (steamed mussels) was never delivered. Plus, the staff seemed oblivious to the numerous tables left disheveled long after diners had departed.

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