La Perla Bistro6530 Fair Oaks Blvd.
Carmichael, CA 95608
One of the pitfalls of reviewing restaurants is the guilt. Not the guilt for eating the caloric chocolate desserts; no, the guilt of running across a restaurant that is obviously trying hard—perhaps too hard—and yet is flawed in such a way that it is impossible to give it the A for all the effort it’s making. La Perla Bistro is just such a restaurant. The food and the service strive—oh, how they strive—but are undermined by a dud location on Fair Oaks, a setting and dated décor that are just plain weird and the weight of their own effortful-ness. The food has moments when it shines, and a number of inventive touches, but also some serious flaws.
As far as the service goes, it’s tough to really relax and enjoy a dinner when your table is visited twice (once by the maitre d’, once by the server) during every course with sincere, sometimes slightly plaintive queries about whether everything was all right. That includes visits during not just our appetizers, entrees and dessert, but also the time the server brought housemade bread (twice, in fact), our glasses of wine and my husband’s coffee, as well as a final post-bill check-in just to make sure everything was really OK. Our server was peppy and sweet, the host studiedly suave. I appreciated their concern, and I feel bad complaining about it—but it was, shall we say, overkill.
Then again, the staff was a little bit at loose ends. The place was dead-empty at 7 p.m. on Saturday—not a great sign, and the couple tables of diners were lost in the big shoe box of a room, which boasted a grandiose Greco-Roman-Italianate theme, complete with columns, a stray angel draped in fabric, luxe swags and curtains, plants and gold-painted Chiavari chairs. The glazed-concrete floors were attractive but made the space feel even colder and draftier.
The menu, too, has an ornate, overreaching feel—its old-fashioned design clashes oddly with its modern gestures to seasonality and localness, as in the listing of Del Rio greens and other regional farm products, and mod dishes like venison Carpaccio against coq au vin. I liked the diversity of the wine list, as well as the use of unusual whole grains in various parts of the menu. An otherwise odd-sounding dish of Chilean sea bass wrapped in pastrami came with wheat berries on the side, for instance, and we were delivered an amuse-bouche of a tiny buckwheat muffin, filled with crème fraîche and mascarpone. The muffin was breakfasty, but I liked the friable, tender edge and the soft tang of the dairy melting into the warm interior crumb.
The restaurant prides itself on its housemade breads and sent us three kinds, along with delicious butter—a high-fat article from Vermont. I liked their crusty baguette, didn’t like the too-fluffy, over-garlicked focaccia and was neutral on the wheaty, walnut-raisin bread as a dinner accompaniment.
There’s a long list of salads in various seasonal combos; I was intrigued by one with Brussels sprouts, crystallized cranberries and brown butter, but instead opted for a more restrained mixed-green salad, which had some flower petals in with the greens, perfectly sectioned citrus segments, and a light citrus vinaigrette—a refreshing starter. In general, the kitchen does better when they keep things simple, as here. My husband tried a turnover with black trumpet mushrooms and cheese on a bed of greens with capers and brown butter. While the turnover itself was deliciously buttery and savory, the greens were perilously salty. Had it just been the turnover, the dish would have been a success, but the attempt to gild the lily brought the whole thing down.
His entree, the coq au vin—dressed up with baby shiitakes and other little vegetables—was similarly very salty. The chicken was tender and well-cooked; the sauce had only a hint of wine but a whole lot of sodium. My entree, short ribs, veered in the opposite direction (of surprising sweetness). The savory flavor of the succulent meat, deboned and shaped into a little round atop creamy polenta, was drowned by the glazelike sauce. Accompanying spears of purple cauliflower were, alas, cold.
With the desserts, again, simpler was better. My husband’s opera cake had some texture problems, with layers of dense almondy cake sandwiched with coffee buttercream and a rock-hard striation of chocolate ganache. I had a bitingly tart, refreshing pomegranate-lime sorbet, with a perfect butter cookie alongside; the sorbet was icy in spots, but otherwise very nice.
La Perla is the restaurant arm of a catering-and-events company, and the space shows it a bit, from rental-chair-type seating to the great big room that would be better served by a milling crowd. It’s a shame because they’re trying hard, with some good and distinctive concepts on their menu. The execution, though, doesn’t seem like enough to draw diners to their unfortunate location.