An evening stroll along South Pearl Street in Albany ainÂ¡Â¯t what it used to be. Until recently, this long-faded commercial district was scarily deserted after dark, but that all changed with an influx of chain eateries and the installation of blazing streetlights. A most welcome addition to this lower-downtown revival is Pearl Restaurant & Lounge, an upscale Â¡Â°steak-and-seafoodÂ¡Â± restaurant whose chef, Kevin Conway, is best known for his seven-year run with ConwayÂ¡Â¯s on Yates.
Signaled by an electric-blue awning, Pearl is located in the Steuben Athletic Club, where it replaced the SteubenÂ¡Â¯s private dining facility. Entering the clubÂ¡Â¯s former dining room is the first tip that something new and different is afoot: the oak-paneled room with tile floors and tin ceilings is now PearlÂ¡Â¯s stylish martini lounge, tweaked with pop-arty light fixtures and sporting a sleek oak bar.
The main dining room is accessed through the lounge. (A doorman helpfully points the way.) A boxy room lined with booths and dark-wood trim, its gentlemanly ambience is set off with electric-blue accents. (A similar, but starker, second dining area adjoins it.) The practice of adding a splash of brightness to classy traditions extends to the menu, which leans toward Continental favorites such as roast duckling, poached salmon, and filet mignon, all zestfully updated with the chefÂ¡Â¯s superb saucing. The Salmon Genevieve ($19), for example, is topped with a vanilla bean and scallion beurre blanc. For the appetizers, salmon gravlox with herb aioli ($8) and Escargot Bourguignonne ($8) share the page with garlic-sausage steamed clams ($9) and herbed goat cheese with baguettes ($7).
ThereÂ¡Â¯s also a portobello mushroom crepe ($8), and oh, what a crepe it is: pungently earthy grilled mushrooms wrapped in a wild-rice crepe flavorful enough to assert itself in the midst of an utterly delicious chive beurre blanc (mopped up to the last dollop with warm baguette rolls). The kitchen also did delicious wonders with a honey mustard sauce that comes with the Scallops Brochette ($8), while the half-dozen plump scallops topped with bacon and sun-dried tomatoes were zinged by a dab of horseradish.
The tantalizing menu includes pastas, soups of the day (often a lobster or seafood bisque, $5), and two Â¨Â¤ la carte salads: a classic Caesar ($6) and the mesclun-mix house salad ($5), a specialty of the chef. Lightly dressed with a scrumptious, sun-dried cherry vinaigrette, this palate-tingling exercise in the art of sweet-and-tart contained the surprise pow of whole dried cherries, which combined startlingly well with the soft greens.
ConwayÂ¡Â¯s finesse with fruit had a more substantial showcase with his signature entrÂ¨Â¦e, SophieÂ¡Â¯s Duck ($22), named in honor of his mentor, the late Sophie Parker of famous Chez Sophie Bistro in Saratoga. The roasted Long Island half duckling (served partly on the bone) was slathered in a marvelously flavorful apricot glaze. And the accompanying wild rice mixture was so delectably woodsy that I almost didnÂ¡Â¯t notice that the dishÂ¡Â¯s vegetable portion was missing in action.
Other entrÂ¨Â¦es begging to be ordered include grilled swordfish in stone-ground mustard cream sauce ($19), pork tenderloin in cranberry glaze ($20), and veal saltimbocca topped with Marsala and Madeira sauce ($19). Among the five pasta selections, Tortellini Maribou ($17) won out, on account of having artichokes, along with black olives and roasted red peppers. A generous portion of nicely al dente tortellini, it was served in a pesto cream sauce that was richer Â¡Âª and delightfully more herbed Â¡Âª than expected. A better-than-average tiramisu ($7), whose mascarpone was whipped for lightness, made for a pleasant finish. From the eclectic wine list, which favors California wines, a Vento Pinot Grigio ($8 per glass) proved to be a versatile accompaniment.
On a bustling Friday night, service was enthusiastic but distracted, and not as knowledgeable as the food (and prices) warrant. It wouldÂ¡Â¯ve been nice to have been informed that PearlÂ¡Â¯s much-talked-about soufflÂ¨Â¦s require advance ordering, a fact thatÂ¡Â¯s printed on the menu, but is easy to overlook Â¡Âª and just as easy to mention during the specials recitation. During a subsequent weeknight dinner, however, service was exemplary. And the passion fruit soufflÂ¨Â¦, it turned out, was worth the wait. (ItÂ¡Â¯s $10, but make no mistake, this is a dessert for two, or even four.) As pink and puffy as a cloud,
ConwayÂ¡Â¯s dreamy confection became increasingly berrylicious with every spoonful, and didnÂ¡Â¯t at all need the excellent, homemade whipped cream that was served alongside. But ah, the thought of that whipped cream with the chocolate soufflÂ¨Â¦Â¡Â
Averaging $20 per entrÂ¨Â¦e, Pearl can be considered moderately priced in relation to the quality of the food, although some specials, such as the Veal Oscar with Lobster, go to $28. For dating couples or gaggles of friends, the hot-spot buzz on weekends may be worth enduring a few slips, while serious foodies may want to stick with weeknights or an early seating. Smokers will be happy to know that the sandstone outdoor patio Â¡Âª which looks out on Pearl StreetÂ¡Â¯s jumping nightlife Â¡Âª is heated during cold weather. Â¡Ã¶
Pearl Restaurant & Lounge is located at 1 Steuben Place (on S. Pearl St.), Albany. Lunch is served Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Dinner hours are Mon.-Weds., 5-9 p.m.; Thurs.-Sat., 5-10 p.m. The lounge is open until 4 a.m. Closed Sunday. Appetizers are $7-$8; soups and salads $5-$7; entrees $16-$23. Valet parking is free for diners. 518-433-0011.