1410 Rosecrans Street, San Diego
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.
As mentioned, the house was totally slammin’ — and, it turns out, both Trey and his trusty sous-chef were busy cooking a special tasting dinner for a party ensconced in the fabulous secret indoor-outdoor party room. (If a restaurant kitchen is going to have an atypical off-night, it will always have it on the night I’m eating there. It’s a rule that the Fates — or the Furies — abide by religiously.) That night, the line cooks, unrestrained by wiser guidance, stubbed their toes, elbows, ankles, and all other stick-out parts on the salt-shaker, seasoning the dishes to their tastes, not to…well, mine and my posse’s. Odds are, the happy hour–forever crowd on the dining-room barstools never noticed.
We ordered a Kurobuta pork chop medium-rare, without specifying a precise temperature, just to see what would happen. After the perfect medium-rare chop (cooked to 120 degrees and left to rest five minutes) at Red Marlin last week, this was an acid test. The meat arrived not rosy but pale pink — that is, medium (cooked to 135 degrees), and salted so near to death, I assumed it had been brined. (It wasn’t.) It’d be okay without the sodium chloride OD — it’s a nice piece of meat. It came with sweet little local veggies and a bit of tender, luscious sourdough–Boursin bread pudding made with bread from the local Con Pane bakery. I wouldn’t mind more of that — actually, I’d gladly gobble up a gallon of it if I could.
Crisp-skinned salmon, wild-caught in Scotland, offered wonderfully tender flesh and deliciously crackly skin. It came with grilled baby potatoes, slender baby asparagus, and a dilled lemon crème fraîche with, again, far more salt than it needed. (The sauce was splendid when applied to the fish and especially the potatoes, just awfully saline when tasted on its own.)
Moules frites (dainty local Carlsbad black mussels with skinny fries) were steamed in Stone Smoked Porter, with a little Brie cheese stirred in to melt into good goop. The fries were crisp and (what else?) salty. By now, our lips were feeling like those of Lot’s wife, once she’d been turned into a pillar of salt, and our palates were numbed. The chef doesn’t believe in putting salt and pepper on the table for diners to season their own — but even Alice Waters succumbed at Chez Panisse. After numerous complaints (Waters is an undersalter), she finally started furnishing tiny ramekins of sea salt. In this case, perhaps if the kitchen workers knew that diners could add salt, they might be less tempted to overseason preemptively. But this will not usually be a problem here. We just had bad luck, I hope.
For dessert we shared a sensual bread pudding laced with melted bittersweet chocolate, which went surprisingly well with the last of our red wine. (We drank an inexpensive, food-friendly Syrah from Roussillon, in the Pyrenées, with the silly, slangy French name, “Jaja de Jau.” But for another $20 or so, you can sip a bargain-price Drouhin Côte de Beaune that I’d have loved to try. For a white, we went with the downright cheap, crisp, and flavorful screw-top Ken Forrester Petite Chenin from Stellenbosch, South Africa. Aces! Don’t mind the screw-top; it means business.) It was good that the sweet went with the final wine, because the Pearl offers only “regular coffee” — no espresso, French-press, dark roast, etc. Apparently, Point Loma residents want a little more nightlife than they’ve had all these years, but not enough caffeine to keep them up past the midnight closing hour of the bar at the Pearl.
ABOUT THE CHEF
If the vibe at the Pearl is South Beach, then who better for a chef than a Florida native like Trey Hartinger? “I worked in casual local dining establishments in the towns where I lived in Florida, in Jacksonville Beach, Orlando, and in the panhandle. I decided when I was around 15 or so that I wanted to go into cooking. My perspective was from a dishwasher to a line cook — not so much a chef. The line chefs looked like they were having so much more fun than me when I was a dishwasher and hating it. I wanted a better job, and I kept asking the cooks how I could help them, and I found a passion for it.”
Trey, aged 26, served in the Marines for four years, attracted by the promise of having his education paid for upon his discharge. But before starting at the Art Institute of California, San Diego, he worked in Palm Desert at Sun City under chef Michael Gillespie, to refresh his kitchen skills. “My girlfriend and I moved out there. I’d been out of cooking for four years and needed to learn how to use a knife all over again — so that I wouldn’t go to cooking school looking like an a-hole.” He chose the school because a number of his friends had moved to San Diego, and when he visited them, he fell under the city’s spell. “It’s a lot like where I grew up, and the school being in town helped me make the decision.
“I started at Azzura Point while I was still in my second semester. I did only about three months there, because I wasn’t able to make a living on the salary they paid. Then I helped open Stingaree in December ’05, under Antonio Friscia, who really taught me the ethos of using fresh local produce and sustainably raised proteins. It was seeing him come in with a huge smile on his face with 10, 20 pounds of vegetables from Chino Farms. To hear him speak, to see his passion about it — I began to talk to him a little more in depth, and he explained to me about the slow food movement, which I was oblivious to until then. I became fascinated with it…it’s really the way to go with food — it ensures customer satisfaction, first of all, through the freshest possible ingredients, and second of all, it helps to support the local economy.
“My passion drove me through a lot of the stations pretty fast. I started as garde manger there, was on sauté for half a year, worked the grill for half a year, just sort of became the untitled junior sous-chef, the utility tournant. What helped a lot was all the hands-on work at school but also having to study (from books) all the techniques of cuisines around the world.”
After a stint at Bar West, he moved to the Guild, for rather low pay, and was thinking of moving back to Florida when he heard from the management at the Pearl and interviewed for the job with head honcho Sarah Hanson. “It was love at first sight. It was my kind of place — very laid-back, very retro and refined. We do California cuisine with classic French techniques. We don’t even have a food processor here. We have a mortar and pestle from Thailand, which we use about 20 times a day. A lot of that [low-tech ethos] was sparked by Antonio’s [Friscia’s] love for food — I’d never seen anything like it before. So we hand-pick all our vegetables, at Specialty Produce and at Hillcrest Farmer’s Market. We’ve been curing and smoking our own bacon belly…and curing and smoking our own salmon.
“We want to provide a dining atmosphere for the community where they’re not intimidated and never let down with classics and with our unique twists on many items — and with trying to spread our philosophy of staying local and staying organic…I think food needs to stay as simple as possible. We don’t like to denature anything. We don’t brine, marinate, do anything to make the food taste other than itself.”
- 2.5 stars
- (Good to Very Good)
1410 Rosecrans, Point Loma, 619-226-6100, thepearlsd.com
HOURS: Monday–Saturday 5:00–10:00 p.m., bar until midnight. Sunday brunch 10:00 a.m.–2:00 p.m.
PRICES: Starters, $7–$12; mains, $14–$24; desserts about $8. Monday nights three-course prix-fixe $25, select wines half-price.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: California-eclectic and grazing, with local produce, sustainable meat and fish. International wine list at wide price range, some bargains, plenty by the glass. Full bar.
PICK HITS: Candied pork belly, “deconstructed” shrimp nachos; wings du jour; salmon with skin.
NEED TO KNOW: No reservations except for large parties and special occasions. Limited indoor seating at tall barstools and high tables; accessible seating outdoors with optional heat, or private party room for six or more diners. Bathrooms chic, unisex, accessible. At least one vegetarian entrée nightly. Wednesday-night movies shown at poolside (free) at 8:00 p.m. $79 “play and stay” rate for hotel rooms if available.