Curse be damned
Sacramento, CA 95833
Like Pyramis and Thisbe, the two-story space next to Chevy’s at the Riverbank Marina has been star-crossed. Since the Garden Highway marina opened in 1986, the narrow, steep-staired restaurant has been Ricky’s Grill on the River, then Woody’s and, after that, Blue Gecko. Since April, it’s Pearl on the River. And, like the parable, it truly is a pearl of rare price.
Instantly impressive is Pearl’s service. Inside or outside? Outside. The view is better upstairs. It is, although leafy trees and the hulking Crawdad’s River Cantina below block a fair amount of river view on both balconies.
The hostess’s polite efficiency is a mere aperitif. On all three visits, the hostess is eclipsed by waiter Kevin Faria and waitress Sandra Kerr, whose tawny twang suggests a Texas transplant. Their knowledge of the kitchen’s strengths and of the menu’s entrees and small plates is vast and happily shared. The brisket is brined in house, Sandra says in support of the pastrami sandwich special, which is soon to take up permanent residence on the lunch menu. She brings a pastrami sample with a button of whole-grain mustard to better inform a choice between the sandwich and a crab-and-shrimp Louis special.
In handicapping the menu, Kevin notes the $12.99 fish tacos are filled with fresh mahi-mahi. The New England clam chowder is the best served in Sacramento, he volunteers authoritatively. It’s no idle boast. The creamy but not congealed concoction is deftly flavored and not profaned by an overproliferation of potato stubs, as far too many chowders are. There’s a reason it’s not called potato chowder.
At Pearl, clam gets star billing. Sandra offers Tabasco and a grind of pepper. The chowder is so enticing that, after Sandra peppers it, the $3.99 cup is swiftly drained, the Tabasco bottle forgotten.
The $14.99 crab-and-shrimp Louie special is very similar to the shrimp Louie described in the menu with one obvious addition: It comes in a large white bowl that tilts toward the diner. A generous pile of shrimp and somewhat salty crab cuddle on a bed of mainly romaine ringed by cucumber wheels and halved cherry tomatoes. Three avocado slices teeter on the summit. Rather than halved, the hard-boiled egg is crumbled and liberally sprinkled throughout.
Opting for the downstairs balcony on the second visit yields a kismet twofer: Sandra is the waitress and the $10.99 pastrami sandwich is again one of the specials. The brined brisket is stellar. The underwhelming accompanying onion rings are awash in grease.
But even the sandwich is overshadowed by the beet salad. My Achilles is beets, fennel and figs. Somewhere, there must be a dish incorporating all three. A restaurant that offers any of them, separately or in tandem, always scores style points here.
Pearl racks up quite a few since the roasted Chioggia beets are combined with fennel, mache, goat cheese and apples. Memo to owner Jeff Pooler: Howzabout substituting figs for apples? There’d be at least one hard-core habitué laying out $7.99 with callous regularity.
Apropos of almost nothing, this variety of beet originated in—go figure—Chioggia, a coastal town on an island near Venice, Italy. Far prettier raw, there’s a reason they are known as the “candy-stripe beet.” Cut the top off and be treated to alternating scarlet and white rings that, regrettably, disappear after cooking when the beet becomes all scarlet, all the time.
Fettucine with prawns ($13.99) may not be Pearl’s signature dish, but it is certainly its most synergistic. Along with the beet salad, it reprises on the dinner menu except in a spicier form joining Pearl’s cioppino and evening entrees of king salmon, Alaskan halibut and Kobe sirloin.
In another one of those kooky, off-kilter bowls, five prawns hide in a nest of noodles and red bell peppers knit together with a creamy Calabrian pesto sauce. Pesto in Calabria, the toe of the boot, centers on red peppers, not basil. The cream adds an orange hue and consistency that chunks of bread are irresistibly drawn to.
Groovy ambience. Good food. Great service. The curse may well be lifted.