The extreme makeover of Pearl Oyster Bar & Restaurant in Rockridge is attracting a lot of gossip around the 'hood. Mostly, where did the barn go?
When the boards came down in mid-May after almost a year, the locals were amazed to see the old Red Tractor's sweet Americana replaced with a brushed-steel entryway and tiled windows. No more wood beams and Crayola'd drawings -- now the room is dominated by rows of ocean-hued terrazzo tables, UFO-shaped halogen lights, and a misted-glass bar that works the 1980s retro look so effectively I looked for a razor so I could cut my blow on it. There are seats for about forty, and on two weekday visits none of them sat empty.
At Pearl, though, you can feel the critical difference between San Francisco hip and Oakland hip. A lot of you hardwood-and-plant lovers may be put off by the space -- there's nothing natural about the atmosphere except the good Oakland air. I loved it. In a SF restaurant that glam, everyone inside seems wrapped in a cloak of smug. The crowd at Pearl's was made up of the same pretty people you see wherever halogen lights and saketinis congregate, but the tattooed and couture-spectacled waiters made time to chat with us, and the woman sitting one stool down elbowed me to crack jokes.
The food gives off much the same vibe. Chef Mark Lusardi is in touch with every culinary trend on the upswing. He's sprinkled the menu with yuzu, Spanish pimentón, and Hawaiian pink salt, but he hasn't lost touch with sensible Californian good taste.
Lusardi first made his name in San Francisco. He specialized in seafood at Yabbie's Coastal Kitchen on Polk Street, before doing stints at Emma, Mustard's Grill, and Roxanne's. From Yabbie's, he imported the idea of setting up a raw bar next to the cocktail station, staffed by a chef who plates oysters, tartares, and boiled crabs.
No surprise -- the menu starts with oysters, six kinds. You can pick them by the piece, or order a six- or twelve-pack, from teensy, minerally Olympias to big, briny Hama Hamas from Tomales Bay, all nestled into seaweed and cracked ice. The sampler platter changes daily, with oysters coming from as far as Chile and New Zealand.
In fact, Lusardi loves giving diners tiny samples. Eating at Pearl can feel like grazing at the Whole Foods deli, except you have to pay afterward. For example, he lays out three types of anchovies -- silvery pickled boquerones, spicy Calabrian anchovies, and Italian truffled ones -- around a balsamic-dressed mix of fresh mozzarella, parsley leaves, and mixed olives, countering strong force with strong force.
Similarly, each of the trio of loosely chopped seafood tartares is mixed with a different herb and Italian olive oil and paired with its own designer salt: Halibut and chive comes with fleur de sel, for example, and tuna and thyme with red Hawaiian salt. With each mouthful, the shock of the salt faded into the bland creaminess of the fish. Midway through, I'd hit a sweet spot where the flavor of the fish, herbs, and minerals would flush the palate.
The tartare-and-salt, though lovely, comes off as a little precious. Sucking the Old Bay seasoning out of the legs and joints of Lusardi's plump, juicy "peel-and-squeal" shrimp? Anything but.
Pearl's seafood-only menu draws heavily from Asia and the Mediterranean. A bowl of mussels were steamed in sake and yuzu, the Japanese citrus fruit that tastes like a lemon-grapefruit salad doused with black pepper. It worked a novel twist on the bivalves, catching their earthy undertones, not the sweetness that a white-wine bath brings out. In honor of the Belgians, we ordered the moules with frites, double-fried (for those golden, crispy edges) and dusted with salt and Spanish pimentón. We dipped them in a ramekin of loose, lemony aioli well calibrated to let the flavors of the smoky-sweet paprika and potato come through.
The raw-bar chef spent most of the night filling martini glasses with ahi poke. First, he cut up cubes of seedless, sweet English cucumber, then topped it with diced-to-order fish, as red as a beating heart. Then he dressed both in a robust soy-sesame oil coating and black sesame seeds, and stuck cucumber spears and rough-edged sesame crackers into the fish. The other top seller seems to be fluffy peekytoe crab cakes the size and shape of dayboat scallops. Hefty chunks of meat (from Maine rock crabs, a trash fish made good in the 1990s) were barely held together by a roll in the breadcrumbs. They didn't need any sauce, really, but we passed forkfuls through a stripe of sriracha for a thrill.
If Lusardi has one fault -- besides consistently cooking fish fillets a hair past medium instead of a sensual, translucent medium-rare -- it's that he tends to pull his punches, stopping right at the edge of evoking that sense of wow. It's particularly common to Californian chefs, who fall in love with their raw ingredients and sometimes forget that what you put them together with is just as important.
For example, a salad of cucumber slices and a quartet of chewy, viscous sea vegetables from Mendocino came off clean-tasting but flat. The rice-wine-vinegar dressing needed to be doubled to spark the palate. Mint leaves woven into a pile of shredded green papaya and green apple gave the salad some sparkle, and roasted peanuts some heft, but the salad's light lemongrass dressing just tapped the nose and ran. It didn't flesh out the one-note tartness of the veggies.
Most characteristic of Lusardi's tendency to shy from perfection was his wild king salmon with chermoula sauce, one of four entrée-sized plates. It started with quite a buildup: sugary braised carrots, chickpeas, and herbs in a crimson Moroccan broth as complex and spice-ridden as a mole sauce. In short, the perfect stage for salmon, the other red meat. But on top of the fish he dabbed one of the mildest chermoula sauces I'd ever tasted, and it absorbed the impact of the spices. Most of the versions of this Moroccan pesto that I've tasted flash with fresh herbs, spices, and lemon juice -- just the kind of flourish that would have make the dish explode.
Pearl's desserts don't hold back: The fruit in an apricot-cherry crisp was voluptuously ripe; combined with multibean Tahitian vanilla ice cream, the entire dish is a knockout. The New York-style cheesecake, drizzled with raspberry compote, was a bit of a misnomer, since New York cheesecakes are baked, and this was whipped as light as cotton candy.
Lusardi and maître d' Bob Kovacs have put together a zeitgeist-attuned drinks menu that focuses on white wines, from up-and-coming imports (Austrian Grüner Veltliner) to underheralded classics (French Chablis), along with an equally international block of lighter and medium-bodied reds. The waiters are still getting a feel for the sake list, but their recommendations showed off the range of flavors -- one all coconut and passion fruit, another chocolate and malt -- that brewers can call out of their rice.
On weekends, Pearl pours wine and shucks oysters until midnight. Midnight, people! That's only two hours away from closing time. Fashion-forward Pearl Oyster Bar isn't just making good food -- it's making a scene.