Pearl's of Youth 

New owners bring vitality, but hints of inexperience, to longtime Fremont bistro.

Restaurants are like relationships: The ones that endure the first rush of love and even years two and three of cohabitation face a new kind of challenge: staying fresh. And restaurants that stay around face the Sisyphean task of keeping the quality high, the customers coming back, and the chefs and owners burnout-free.

Things are probably a little easier in smaller cities such as Fremont, where higher-end restaurants face less competition and a less fickle, more forgiving public. But even at a place like Pearl's Cafe, one of Fremont's top bistros since the mid-1980s, a periodic shake-up is in order. Some restaurants change menus. Some change chefs. Pearl's changes owners.

Now, that often spells doom for a restaurant -- it's hard to sustain the magic when the magicians keep taking a powder -- but Pearl's has a good history of success with this sort of thing. Back in 1985, Earl Angst inaugurated Pearl's (there never was a Pearl, by the way) and built up its reputation as Fremont's best bistro. A few years later, Angst sold to Annette and David Jankosky. They ran it for a decade, the kitchen most recently winning acclaim under chef Chris Lichtenhan.

Last December Christine Fahey and Andie Ferman, both in their mid-twenties, assembled a group of investors to buy the business from the Jankoskys, who had decided to move on. Fahey, a Fremont-Newark native, Culinary Institute of America grad, and veteran of Viogner and Wente, took over the helm of the kitchen a few months before the sale. Ferman now runs the front of the house. This infusion of new blood is just what the restaurant needs to keep it going for another decade. The youth of the new owners is the restaurant's best hope for success, but also the source of a few of its flaws.

At first glance, Pearl's may not look like an institution. More like your grandmother's house, except for all the cars parked outside (well, unless you had that kind of grandmother). Peer through the front window at seven or eight tables in the living room, and the restaurant looks empty and dim. But enter and the space unfolds. You pass through a long hallway, looking in at the spacious kitchen, onto a covered back patio brightly lit by colorful handblown glass lamps that dangle from the ceiling like trumpet-vine flowers. Rows of linen-clad tables make it look like your grandmother is throwing a 75th birthday party -- and it's not a potluck. Up a couple of stairs and back into the house, there's a narrow, pale-yellow room where you can see the diners on the patio and eye the cooks at the open plating station abutting the kitchen. On warm nights, there's even a couple of tables on a second, plein air patio behind the first. Despite the casual setting, it feels right to drop $50 or so per person on dinner.

Every meal starts with a tradition carried over from the old days: Pearl's German-style house-baked bread, soft and white and flecked with herbs. We loved it, as did one night's waiter, who kept offering us more, including a few slices for the takeout box. In fact, our waiter loved all the food so much we felt pressure to match him gush for gush. But he also knew what he was doing, as did the more demure server who took care -- and I don't use that phrase lightly -- of my friends and I on a second visit. They came with the business.

Under Chef Fahey, Pearl's menu has retained its eclecticism, but the streamlined lunch and dinner menus now change regularly to reflect the seasons, supplemented by two or three daily specials.

Entrée prices range from $20 to $27, and they include a choice of soup or salad. Celebrating the arrival of the warmer months, the complimentary organic mixed greens salad whooped it up with blueberries, crumbled blue cheese, and pickled red onions in a winsome, sweet vinaigrette. One night's soup, creamy pureed new potato and kale, used the meaty, iron-rich heft of the greens to bring out the distinct earthiness of the potatoes. With a free first course, appetizers may seem superfluous, but may be ordered as part of a small-plates meal. They include a Caesar salad, a Brie and champagne fondue, and a roasted portabellini mushroom covered in shredded duck confit mixed with mascarpone and dried cherries, then gratinéed. Slightly stoner, pronounced my companion as he licked the last of the confit off his fork.

When they succeed, the entrées fulfill the Californian credo of simplicity and freshness. A rack of lamb arrived a little rarer than expected but buttery tender. The little gaminess left in the meat was offset by a lemony artichoke tapenade. A nouveau Kiev, chicken breast with prosciutto and Swiss wrapped in phyllo, sounded a note of danger -- will it or won't it be dry and bland? Yet the meat stayed moist in its flaky crust, and picked up the salty, palate-filling character of the ham 'n' cheese. The whole-grain mustard cream sauce gave it a needed jolt. And a properly treated peppered filet mignon only needed the pat of herb butter that melted over its surface for a bit of polish.

Yet notes of inexperience sounded in the vegetables -- underblanched and tossed in so much garlic that the alliaceous burn put us off -- and in the mushroom risotto. It sounded great: mushrooms and butter-braised leeks with a hint of truffle. And though the chefs cooked the rice perfectly, binding it with stock, butter, and cheese into a sumptuous mass whose grains nevertheless remained distinct, they left out the flavor. The hint of truffle was uttered at a sub-whisper (hint: Always sprinkle on the truffle oil at the last second), the shiitake mushrooms had little flavor to call their own, and the leeks weren't pungent enough to carry the dish. Similarly, a mint granita (a country-style sorbet) served in a wine glass with two shortbread cookies to accompany it, could have used a mint syrup along with fresh mint to give it depth of flavor, and should have been tended to a little more frequently in the freezer to reduce the size of the toothsome grains of ice. But a peanut-butter brownie sundae, again appealing to that stonerish, primal craving for creamy, gooey things, practically evaporated from the plate.

Maturity will bring more finesse and consistency to the food produced by the kitchen. But with a welcoming space and excellent service to smooth things out, the flaws of youth aren't the sort to mar Pearl's good name. There's definitely hope for a silver anniversary.


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