When my eyes roam over the menu at The Pearl, I can't help but feel a little, well, disappointed. Chef Karim Chiadmi has stamped his personal touch on a few eateries on or near Treasure Island — like Kadim's Bistro a block away at the Thunderbird or O'Bistro up on Central in St. Pete. They're a touch informed by the rich spices and sweet stews of northern Africa.
I can't find that culinary influence here, though. At first glance, The Pearl is strictly French and Italian continental, with an extensive menu that is strangely devoid of soul. Then I notice a page sitting off to the side, listing dozens of tapas. Tapas? Well, why the hell not? These days, it's as common as crème brulee, but is rarely paired with the seemingly staid cuisine that fills the rest of The Pearl's menu. Can a single sheet of Moroccan and Spanish small plates really work with Chiadmi's continental core?
It helps that The Pearl exudes a tapas bar vibe. It's loud, the comforting roar of happy conversations fueled by good sangria and a decent wine list, ratcheted up by an exuberant acoustic guitarist who occasionally ventures out into the crowd.
At the back of the converted strip mall space is a riot of activity, fire and sizzle and plates hitting the bar that bellies right up to an open kitchen. The Pearl does an open kitchen the right way — only the pretty food prep takes place out in the open, with swinging doors hiding all of the less attractive pre- and post-meal activities.
My friends and I order so much tapas, along with several dishes off the main menu, that we expect the timing to be in disarray, but our server handles it perfectly, sending us on a three-hour tour that gives us time to adjust to a massive parade of food.
First out are cold tapas, including a duo of raw tuna dishes. Tuna picantes ($4.50) is served on crisped bread, the tiny red cubes of fish overwhelmed by a heavy hand with smoky cumin. A better choice is the "tuna martini" ($4), a small but beautiful pile of fish highlighted by sweet soy dressing and shreds of wakame seaweed. At that price, I could eat a dozen.
The salad plate ($10) is a sadly forgettable dip into Chiadmi's North African repertoire, a tiny saucer filled with the usual suspects: hummus, olives, marinated artichoke and some tabouleh. At least the cheese plate ($7) has some good Manchego, paired with pepper-crusted chevre, boring brie and blandly blue Roquefort.
When the hot tapas hit the table, our server removes a peaked ceramic cone from one dish, releasing a cloud of steam that carries the promise of another return to Moroccan roots. It's a calamari tajine ($6) served in the traditional clay oven of Northern Africa, a sauce of tomato and spice accenting exceptionally tender squid. Even better is kefta sausage ($6). Two seared patties of ground lamb are seasoned with cumin and paprika, with a puddle of tzatsiki to lighten it.
So, the tapas are good, but that was never really my concern. What about the rest of the menu? Filled with old-fashioned chicken and beef dishes, it reads like a culinary school textbook. Maybe it's there to please the elderly, or unadventurous Treasure Island tourists. It's hard to imagine that kind of food fitting into this rocking, festive scene.
My first bite of chicken chasseur ($15.95) causes me to re-evaluate my position. I usually avoid chicken at restaurants since it takes a great chef to make a bland American chicken breast into anything worth paying money for. Chiadmi is up to the challenge, it appears. A dark brown seared breast, chopped into sections, is doused in a fantastic pan sauce of wine, mustard and earthy mushrooms. Incredibly simple and masterfully done. It's so good, I don't want to share.
The Pearl's crab cakes ($19.95) are better than most, if a bit heavy on the breadcrumbs. Thankfully, they are packed with buttery lumps of shellfish to counteract the seasoned filler, and drizzled with a sweet mustard aioli.
A Mediterranean-style snapper special ($22) suffers from the perpetual problem of pairing fish with cheese. The fish itself is perfectly cooked; the sauce of capers and tomatoes matches well, but every bite that contains feta is overpowered by the crumbly cheese. Still, we easily finish it.
Two more tapas — it seems we ordered so much food, we forgot some of it — finish our main course. A duck confit special ($10) has that broken-down tenderness that only comes from slow braising in its own fat, but is a bit gamey for me. Grilled Cornish hen ($8) is coated in a slightly sweet glaze that has caramelized on the grill, making the luscious meat so tasty we devote sincere effort to peeling every last shred from the tiny bones.
On to dessert. The Pearl's espresso-flavored crème brulee ($5) is just fine, like any of the millions served in the Bay area every year, but the poached pear ($5) is disappointing. It's coated in melted chocolate, which deadens the meager natural flavor of the fruit. It's all moot anyway, because everyone should be ordering the chocolate soufflé ($6). Rich and hot, the airy soufflé is doused with a chocolate and raspberry sauce that causes us to consider ordering a few more for the table. If they didn't take 15 minutes to prepare, we just might have.
By this time we've been at The Pearl for almost three hours, working our way through a seemingly endless stream of plates. It's gotta end sometime.
I'm glad my initial skepticism was proven wrong. Although The Pearl's food may not have philosophical consistency — pairing Spanish and northern African bar food with classical French and Italian cuisine is a bit odd, after all — at least there's geographic continuity, like a tour across the Mediterranean. In less capable hands, this mish-mash might not work. It turns out that Chef Chiadmi is more than capable enough to pull it off.
Brian Ries is a former restaurant general manager with an advanced diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers. He can be reached at [email protected]. Planet food critics dine anonymously, and the paper pays for the meals. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.