Our paper plates were piled with smoked pork ribs and colorful side dishes shoveled from aluminum foil casserole pans. Pearl in the Grove’s second annual Swinefest on Sunday afternoon felt like a cookout in the country.
And hey, compared to either side of the bay, Dade City qualifies.
After being greeted by co-owner Curtis Beebe, who hosts the small-town restaurant’s outdoor event alongside co-owner Rebecca Beebe, his wife, my dining accomplice and I made our way to the tree-laden seating area. (Fest-goers were dining inside, too.)
We balanced our fare, sweet teas in hand, and I smiled as we waddled closer. Each of the eight white-clothed tables was littered with a few empty beer or wine glasses left behind by the satisfied diners who came before us.
Barley Mow, Three Palms, Saint Somewhere and Big Storm brewing companies poured local craft brews during the event, and I selected our suds of choice — a pale ale for her, and an IPA for me — before eating.
With five sauces to choose from, my accomplice settled on a tangy mustard barbecue sauce for one helping of ribs and slathered a traditional blend on another. She described the free-range meat, which the Pearl bought locally from Palmetto Creek Farms in Avon Park, as smoky and tender. The pork fell right off the bones. A grilled brat, also from Palmetto Creek, had flavorful spices.
The restaurant, serving up New American cuisine with Southern influences, additionally provided around 115 diners, according to Curtis, with a roasted whole pig from Brooksville’s Nature Delivered Farm and five sides suited for its inviting barbecue.
There was a cabbage dish, a medley of beans and a curried sweet potato salad that featured enjoyable traces of celery, even crispy homemade sweet potato chips and bacon pecan brittle.
One woman shouted to her companion from across the yard, “Get more brittle!”
In between sips of tea and beer, the lovebugs were no match for us. We swatted them away and cleaned our plates, saving room to share one of the generously sized brownies that eyed us earlier. It was as moist as it was rich yet had unexpected hints of salt, which convinced these diners that sweet and salty brownie combinations reign supreme.
Sometime after 5:30 p.m., as the event came to a close, Beebe chatted with us — in a way that mirrors the aura of your favorite relative — about the Swinefest turnout; the pub he and Rebecca are opening nearby in about four or five weeks called Local Public House; and what fuels Pearl in the Grove’s farm-to-fork philosophy.
“To me, it just feels better,” Curtis said of the cooking’s locally sourced ingredients.
He said product from Pearl suppliers will also be incorporated into Local’s fresh-first menu, which the Pearl showcased on Monday nights for at least 12 weeks. The meat and produce won’t necessarily be organic, according to Beebe, but diners will know who’s raising both.
The fields that grow peaches and kumquats for the Pearl are just down Scharber Road on the left and the right, not even a mile from the restaurant.
Beebe advised us to take Scharber back to Interstate 75. Along the way, we could admire a vista, an open view of land for miles with barely any houses, he said. So we did.
We pulled off to the right side of the road, and stayed for a while.