There are few more iconic properties in Old Brooklyn than the sturdy brick fortress at 4250 Pearl Road. What began life as a bank branch in the early 20th century has, in more recent history, been the site of numerous restaurant concepts, from Michaud's Aloha, where Hawaiian feasts were dished up in a faux Polynesian setting, to Mexico Lindo, a very short-lived Latin eatery. Contemporaries will more likely recall Theo's Grill, whose sign still clings to the facade, and Drink Bar and Grill, which imbued the neighborhood with more optimism during its five-year-run than many of its predecessors combined.
That weighty mantle now belongs to Tony Mellon and his eight-month-old creation Opal on Pearl. Like many before him, Mellon is personally invested in the neighborhood, having moved to Old Brooklyn from Tremont 13 years ago. He inherited a space that was essentially turnkey thanks to Drink owner Brian Ochs, who did much of the heavy lifting in terms of repairs, renovations and restorations.
Mellon has more than a few things in his favor. Thanks to 30-plus years in the hospitality industry, working for talent like Michael Symon, Sergio Abramof, Karen Small and Eric Williams at places such as Caxton Cafe, Johnny's on Fulton, Lola and Flying Fig, he comes with a deep understanding of the business. That biography also buys a man a certain level of support from friends and patrons amassed along the way. Whether or not they will return all depends on what they find when they get there.
What we found during our visits was a cozy neighborhood wine bar with more than enough food to keep guests from leaving when the inevitable hunger pangs strike. Since opening last summer, Opal has matured from a cheese-and-crackers kind of place to a full-fledged restaurant that attracts neighbors — if not cross-towners — for both drinks and dinner. The menu leans to approachable and unfussy, a collection of greatest hits culled from bar and bistro menus everywhere. Small plates like stuffed peppers, calamari, mussels and flatbread are joined by a limited number of entrees and nightly specials, larger plates to appease bigger appetites.
Thrilling takes a back seat to satisfying in dishes like calamari ($11), breaded and fried rings served on a bed of garlicky aioli, and mussels ($11), plump but petite morsels steamed in the customary tomato-wine-butter-garlic broth that demands more bread. Opal's flatbread ($8), a preparation that changes frequently, is better than most pies prepared in the back of a bar, and the sausage-stuffed banana peppers ($11) are appropriately zesty, spicy and dripping with melted cheese. We can't heap equivalent praise on the crab cakes ($12), a lackluster and altogether lump-free mash that only faintly conjures meals by the shore.
I'm not one to gripe about prices as variables like choice of ingredients, portion size and labor costs make it difficult to compare apples to apples, but charging $8 for a dish of olives and $10 for six chicken wings seems out of line with genial neighborhood pricing. I will say that the wings are delicious — hot, crisp-edged and slicked with a ginger-scented sauce.
Buoyed by positive response, Mellon continues to push the envelope of what a wine bar kitchen can pull off in terms of large plates. Specials have included compositions like braised short ribs with parsnip puree, bone-in pork chops with charred Brussels sprouts and a seafood-stacked cioppino in a spicy tomato broth. A lean, petite sirloin steak ($15) is grilled to a rosy medium rare and served thinly sliced. Unfortunately, those slices are plopped onto a pool of house steak sauce that is sweet and ketchup-y. The kitchen was out of green beans so they subbed Brussels sprouts, which, while pleasantly charred, were limp through and through. There is little fault to find, however, with the garlic shrimp ($11) thanks to a handful of chubby, succulent specimens in a garlicky butter sauce accompanied by grilled bread.
Opal offers more than 20 wines by the glass priced between $7 and $10, and each one we tried tasted fresh and free from age. A larger wine-by-the-bottle list offers some bigger, blue chip-style labels from California, France and Italy for those so inclined. There's beer, both draft and bottled, and a full bar, but no cocktail list to speak of.
Banks weren't built to take advantage of the view and there are times when the "dim and sexy" feel of the lounge can edge toward dark and drab, especially on those rare days when the sun is shining on the other side of those few small windows. A soon-to-come front patio should help convince customers to keep coming, as should the scarcity of delightful American bistros like this one in the immediate area.