Cafe Reviews

Pearl Sushi Lounge: Chic Ambiance and (Mostly) Flashy Food in Scottsdale

Have you heard the rumors about Pearl? There are several.

That the sushi lounge and bomber bar in Scottsdale is sleazy, salaciously tempting the moral constitution of innocent souls with its images of naked women and sex-fueled names of a few of its signature rolls.

That it is ultra-hip and clubby, with beautiful people mingling to the thump, thump, thumping of party beats while sipping sake or a funky cocktail and sizing up their eye-candy competition. And that the sushi is average, tolerable only when it's eaten on the cheap during happy hour, which happens to be all day every day.

Floating about like flakes of katsuobushi in a simmering pot of ponzu, there is truth, exaggeration, and falsities in all the gossip-y tales, but if there's one accurate statement to be made about Pearl, it's that the sushi takes a backseat to the scene. Thankfully, Pearl's edamame beans tossed in soy sauce and garlic don't, making this kicked-up spin on one of my favorite munchies tasty and completely devoid of scandal.

But hardly enough for a meal.

Located at the corner of Third Avenue and Drinkwater, Pearl exists courtesy of restaurant entrepreneurs Jimmy and Tammy Carlin, formerly of Blue Wasabi Sushi & Martini Bar, where, being no strangers to nightlife noshing with a gimmick, they dyed the signature condiment turquoise and featured "new age" sushi rolls with names like Kiss My Bass, Marilyn Monroll, and PITA (Pain in the Ass.) Now, Jimmy Carlin, a partner at Tempe-based Maven Hospitality, plans to open two restaurants at downtown's CityScape: The Strand, fast-casual Italian eatery, and a pan-Asian restaurant called Silk Sushi.

With Pearl located next to the booming, adult-themed Cream Stereo Lounge and within walking distance to several other press-the-flesh bars and nightclubs in Old Town Scottsdale, a bit of bawdiness is bound to rub off, but in this case, it's fairly harmless and strictly PG-13. The black-and-white images of "naked women" wearing strands of pearls are cropped to reveal little save for a few belly buttons and hang in a small, stylishly done, and decidedly un-club-like room of purple and green with a sushi bar, raised booths, and a nice little outdoor patio off to the side. Perhaps, given that it's been around now for more than four years, Pearl's appeal to the scenesters has diminished some, their visits essentially pop-ins before or after clubbing, with the majority of its dining patrons coming from the surrounding apartments and hotels to enjoy the meal and drink specials that a Pearl rewards card and an all-day happy hour bring.

If you're familiar with the menu at Blue Wasabi — signature rolls at center stage, traditional fare taking up bottom-of-the-page real estate — then you will find Pearl's to be similar. In 2008, Tammy Carlin came on board to manage the day-to-day operations, bringing along chef Michael Shortino, whose résumé includes consulting for such eateries as RA and Drift and directing operations for the Roka restaurants, to update Pearl's menu to feature more fusion-style small plates. Among them are pork and vegetable potstickers lacking in both pork and vegetable and tempura rock shrimp, whose unpleasant, gummy coating of Pearl Sauce (a mixture of wasabi and the Japanese citrus fruit yuzu) elicits little in the way of heat or citrus.

But if you enjoy your Korean-style barbecued pork ribs, known as kalbi, on the very sweet side and can tolerate a generous translation of "Korean tacos," the fusion dish containing chunks of Korean-style meat atop corn tortillas, then Pearl's version, shredded meat garnished with diced pineapple and mango in five mini-hard-shell homes, should be satisfying.

Given Pearl's penchant for style over substance, it's easy to see why the food frequently goes the way of outrageous, as in the restaurant's signature rolls. In the beginning, names such as the "Pocket Rocket," "Crab Daddy," and "Pearl Necklace" probably were fairly amusing, but now, at their mere mention or the ensuing giggles, one could power Pearl's electrical system with the sighs heard from its staff.

Overall, too many ingredients get in the way of themselves to create visual havoc, causing creations like The Deep V (an avocado, cucumber, spicy crab mix, and coconut shrimp roll topped with spicy tuna and sprinkled with tempura crunchies over a peach chili sauce) to look like the edible version of a toppled Jenga game and elicit little in the way of taste. Other versions aren't quite as extreme, but they are equally unremarkable, looking and sounding more interesting than they taste.

There are better dishes to be found in Pearl's new-style sashimi. The albacore tuna, touched with the slightest sear and topped with crispy onions and a bit of yuzu wasabi sauce, is light and texturally pleasing. Better is the tuna sashimi, thinly sliced and placed in the form of a pinwheel; its toppings of avocado and spicy and sour sauces made for a pleasing and balanced flavor experience.

And if you must have the more recognizable, less flashy traditional rolls, sashimi, and sushi, prepare yourself for the probability of technical difficulties such as chewy and tough nori, undercooked rice, or wilting garnishes (two out of three occurred in the rolls I ordered). Best bets are the tuna or salmon sashimi and sushi bites of quail egg, mackerel, and freshwater eel.

More down-to-earth than their chic surroundings are the servers. Whether describing a dish, reviewing specials, guiding patrons through the sake offerings (which include hot or cold draft sake, a sparkling sake, and a plum sake) or providing step-by-step instructions on how to prepare the perfect bomber, the servers at Pearl are friendly, helpful, and eager to ensure their guests have as good a time as possible. In fact, on one of my visits, my dining companions and I were treated to a highly entertaining impromptu magic act at our table.

Another trick in Pearl's showy scene, perhaps, but unlike the food, thoroughly genuine.