1410 Rosecrans Street, Point Loma
The summer I was six, my mom and I (plus two platinum-blond, leather-skinned aunts resembling Marge Simpson’s sisters, and a sweet, bald uncle) spent a month in a middle-class, family-oriented Deco hotel in South Miami Beach. Mainly fun, except for the invasive aunts and the stinky Noxzema for sunburns. The Pearl reminds me of that vacation (minus Irma, Alice, Mom, and Noxzema; fun-loving Uncle Mac may be there in spirit).
A boxy motel in Point Loma on Rosecrans, at the corner of Guildstern (don’t take this seriously, there’s no such street — alas), the Pearl was probably built in the late ’50s. It has recently been renovated with some elegance to evoke South Beach — not then, but now, with a distinct “adults only” vibe in the minuscule dining room, if that’s what you want to call it. It’s more of a drinking room. Almost all the indoor seating (for about 18) is on towering barstools, at the bar or at tall tables. They don’t normally take reservations, and the busy night we ate there, the thrones were all occupied from the start of happy hour, when the imbibers had apparently assumed their positions for the evening. There’s more room out by the pool, at a few two-tops in front of the bar, a large “cabana” with low tables, and several divinely comfortable banquettes along a side wall. Like last week’s Red Marlin, this is a site where you can pretend for an evening to be on a tropical vacation — but at relative bargain prices.
Point Loma is a neighborhood that’s just starting to wake up after dark, and a lot of what the Pearl is about is fun and games. There’s a Sunday afternoon pool party with a DJ and free Wi-Fi, and Wednesday night offers free poolside movies. (On a Thursday, Goldfinger was playing with the sound off — many scenic shots of the young Sean Connery, but my gang all agreed he got hotter later, as he got older.) On the July 4 weekend, there’ll even be a poolside barbecue (call the Pearl for details).
But the restaurant is trying to be serious, too, with conscientiously “green” food, as good as the frolics, under chef Trey Hartinger, who’s worked in such fine local kitchens as Azzura Point, the Guild, and Stingaree. (He’s at least the third chef since the opening last fall, but he’s been there since March and is apparently making a go of it.)
The only notable menu holdout from previous regimes is the best seller, “Cuban Cigars” (a legacy of the first chef, rumored to have been a Cuban from Miami, but quién sabe?). Samurai Jim and I sampled this dish on a scouting mission several months and chefs ago; it consists of a couple of deep-fried wonton-skin cornets filled with the basic materials of a Cuban sandwich — braised pork, ham, and Swiss cheese. Trey has tweaked the seasonings for the pork and added mint and rum to the “mojito mustard” (previously it was just straight mustard and mayo), but we didn’t try it this time since we didn’t like it last time. With the tweaks, we might.
The second-most-popular dish is “deconstructed shrimp nachos,” a skewer of slightly spicy shrimp accompanied by tortilla chips, smashed black beans, cheese fondue, salsa, and a few slices of pickled avocado. “This is great bar food,” said Michelle, correctly. It fills the mouth.
Even better was the candied pork belly, a chunk of melting, fatty meat seasoned with ginger, sugar, and orange zest over a couple of firm-tender branches of bok choy. (By the way, if you come here for Sunday brunch, the bacon is pork belly that’s been cured and smoked in-house over applewood chips. And the salmon in the hash is smoked in-house as well.)
“Wings” change their flavor daily. Our evening’s flavor was “Moroccan,” sort of. The chicken was sweet up front, then faintly smoky, then complex, with a spice blend none of us could pin down, more Southeast Asian curry than north African. Delicious whatever its origins, it had a great crisp texture. In the center of the plate was a yogurt-based mixture of chick peas and coarse-grained Israeli couscous. The dish was almost as much fun as a pool party. Other nights, the wings range from Southern-fried with bacon-baked beans, mac ’n’ cheese, and collard greens to Jamaican jerk wings with black-bean smash and plantain chips and pineapple. “I’m from the South,” says the chef. “I needed to have wings on my menu. I was pretty much raised on hot wings in sports bars.”
The soup of the evening was a lobster bisque, thick and a bit glutinous, needing perhaps more fennel undertone plus a seafood boost from fresh lobster meat, going beyond the carapaces and spare parts that went into the stock. Another mild disappointment was an organic baby lettuce salad with a “tahini-herb vinaigrette” (putatively based on Middle Eastern sesame-seed paste), which didn’t live up to its billing — if there was tahini in there, it was used so sparingly we couldn’t detect it. Still tasted good, just not exciting.
Our server was attentive, well informed, energetic, but the place was totally and unexpectedly slamming that Thursday night, and she forgot to mention a couple of specials. One was a luscious-looking heirloom local tomato salad (olive oil, a bit of balsamic, salt, and nothing more) that we saw on neighboring tables and lusted for too late. Another special arrived, unordered (and unbilled) among our appetizers — an entrée of spotted bass with cherry tomatoes. Glad we hadn’t been tempted, since it was so bland we tasted only enough to try to guess what the mystery fish might be before abandoning it.
Sweetbreads sauced with Maker’s Mark bourbon are offered as an appetizer, but they also show up as a garnish on an entrée of grass-fed rib-eye steak (from Tall Grass Beef in Kansas). The meat arrived sliced but every bit as rare as we ordered it, if not rarer. The sweetbreads were a delightful touch, little nuggets of soft, sweet earthiness. (If you love this meat, order the appetizer; you’ll probably want more of them.) For veggies there were lively greens and a “root vegetable purée” of potatoes, with subtle undertones of parsnip, parsley root, and celeriac — and an even subtler touch of truffle oil, not so much to taste as a breath of earth to inhale.