Late-night nosh

The walk from The Distillery down 21st Street toward J Street at 2 a.m. on a Saturday night is an entertaining one. Partiers in full bloom of their social smoking pour onto the streets. The punk and rocker scene gives way to a more upscale, female-dominated club crowd. As you get toward J Street, it grows quieter and darker. A right turn onto J yields some neon here and there. Stragglers mill around Taqueria Taco Loco and True Love Coffeehouse, and the well-known Midtown club Harlow’s has its share of 2 a.m. lingerers.

Unlike other cities where late-nighters would have some munch options, you’re largely out of luck in Sacramento. Tapa the World? Closed a couple of hours ago. Habanero Cava Latino? Totally closed. Even that new Euro-Asia Bistro has called it a night. But, whoa—what’s this? A late-night joint on J Street?

Enter Black Pearl Oyster Bar, a hip new joint that is not so much an eatery as it is a surreal supper club with a seafood flair. The dining spot, in the space formerly occupied by the Marshall Grounds Cafe, offers menu items until 3 a.m. Yes, 3 a.m. Surely a place like this would be right at home in New York or Los Angeles, or even Baltimore or Oakland. But Sacramento?

The fact is that Sacramento has been in desperate need of a late-night dining establishment. Not Eppie’s. Not Beto’s. And not even Willie’s Burgers and Chiliburger, no disrespect intended to this most necessary of chili-cheese-fry vendors. Judging by the milling about at 2 a.m., there are plenty of hungry clubbers and drinkers ready to chow down.

In some bars in Los Angeles, a tamale vendor comes in around midnight, taking orders from patrons; you can order pork, chicken or cheese tamales. The tamales come to you in a matter of minutes, steaming in their corn jackets. You unwrap them and devour the sweet corn and meaty insides. This gives you sustenance, and you’re ready for another round.

It’s no great mystery: Drinkers turn into diners sometime between midnight and 3 a.m. The trick is not to make them travel too far for their food.

Black Pearl is not for everyone. It’s a beautiful-people’s hangout. From the illuminated liquors on display at the bar to the high-tech flat-screen TV on the side to the soft, romantic lighting and artistic masks on the wall, Black Pearl’s aesthetic exudes loungie-chic rather than preppy, funky or arty.

Cushy, comfortable booths on the left give way to roomier tables as you walk toward the back of the restaurant. Stairs on the right lead to an upstairs dining room, and the open kitchen in the back gives diners a glimpse of what’s going on. The strangest touches are the unisex bathroom with its reflective industrial steel, and the repackaged rap, purged of edge, that thumps seductively throughout.

Service is friendly.

The post-midnight menu is a café version of the seafood-heavy dinner menu: oysters on the half shell, Dungeness crab Louie, crab cakes with lemon gherkin aioli. At 2 a.m., these don’t register high on the munch meter. The Pearl burger with blue cheese, the spicy fries, the oyster po’ boy and a smoked-turkey-and-bacon club sandwich look like safer bets but turn out to be a bit too ordinary.

The smoked turkey is flavorful, but the bread needs defining—more raison d’être than holding the contents of a sandwich together. The sandwich spread looks Thousand Island-like but is otherwise undetectable. The burger is tasty, albeit dense, but the unmelted blue cheese gives it an overly salty flavor, which becomes over-the-top when you’re eating the kimchi like coleslaw. The oyster po’ boy (a fried-oyster sandwich) suffers from the same weaknesses as the smoked-turkey sandwich. And it’s exactly the same drill—roll, lackluster tomato, iceberg lettuce, pinkish sandwich spread. That’s surprising, considering the differences in the two fillings. Only the spicy fries really deliver. They’re hot and heavily spiced, and they go well with both the blue cheese and spicy ketchup.

Clearly, Black Pearl has something going on. There are too many people leaving the bars at 2 a.m. to leave this market untapped. Harlow’s owner Peter Torza must know as much, considering the crowd that lingers out front in the late hours. But Black Pearl’s menu, although it comes close, misses the mark. If Sacramentans are bold enough to go clubbing until 3 a.m., they should get something a little more sophisticated to cap their night. Give them what chefs might give to other chefs—a rich, fatty taste of home cooking that will help soak up the booze and help them snooze through the dawn.