Pearl in the Grove is no misnomer...it is a pearl and it is most definitely "in the grove". More specifically, it's a short drive off I-75 North, down a few miles of narrow, winding road in a bucolic section of East Pasco county rich with orange groves...perched pretty much in the middle of nowhere. This is a destination you'll need your GPS to find...you're not going to chance upon it (which is a pity).
Pearl in the Grove features an ever-changing menu of creative southern-style cuisine using mostly local and sustainable fresh ingredients. Don't let the geographic location, unassuming facade and dusty parking lot fool you...this is no Cracker Barrel.
The interior had a comfortable shabby-chic vibe featuring spartan furnishings with paint-spattered concrete floors, brick walls and a chalkboard menu. We were seated in a charming little nook just off the main dining room.
Before I forget, the restaurant filled up very nicely soon after our arrival (which was at the grossly early hour of 5:15) and was congenially buzzy by the time we left at around 7:00. Every staff member we encountered was warm, engaging and helpful. The Pearl doesn't have a full bar, but there was a short but interesting beer and wine list which was fine for us. Now that the miscellaneous stuff is out of the way, let's move on to the most important part...the food!
We were presented with a Florida Cracker amuse-bouche (my description, not theirs) of perfectly boiled peanuts while we perused the menu. Such a cute idea! Although Underdog (who took a real shine to them) pulled them close and kept his paws firmly wrapped around the little crock they were served in, we girls were able to pilfer one or two.
The three of us ordered two starters...the Geeno Chips (fresh cut fried sweet potato chips with bleu cheese and balsamic vinegar) and a Relish Tray which included black-eyed pea caviar, fried green tomatoes, freshly baked saltine crackers and house-made pickles.
Don't these look good?
The Relish Tray (which I'll fondly refer to as the "Redneck Sampler") was also a real crowd-pleaser. Fried Green Tomatoes are generally high on my loathing list, but even I was able to get down half a slab (while my companions practically snorted the rest). The crunchy cornmeal breading was truly a thing of beauty and I'm pretty sure I could eat the sole of an old shoe if it was coated and deep fried in a similar manner. The pickles had a sweet-yet-spicy kick that everyone raved about and I totally fell in love with the black-eyed-pea "caviar". Cool, nutty and zesty...me likey!
Our companion, Joan, has dined at the Pearl five times without ever veering from the Catfish Beignets and tonight was no exception. That was all the endorsement I needed, so I placed the same order and was not disappointed. The beignets were light, marshmallow-soft on the inside, crispy on the outside and laden with plenty of sweet, flaky catfish morsels. Tomato lent a tangy twist to the grit cake, which was a fine accompaniment. The veggies on the side were crazy-good...so bright and fresh, and all tasting as though they'd just been picked that morning! I've hated okra (and its associated slime) my entire life, but the tender baby okra in this vegetable medley made me rethink my contempt. Apparently, mom just didn't know how to cook it correctly.
Jimbo ordered the "Surf and Turf", which was a seared-to-order NY strip with catfish beignets, more of the fabu fresh veggies, and a yummy bleu cheese and red potato tart (which he was understandably very stingy about sharing).
Desserts were made from scratch in-house and quite good overall. Joan chose most wisely with the luxuriously creamy lemon cheesecake and plum topping. It was as perfect as a cheesecake gets.
The Guinness Stout chocolate cake that UD insisted that I order (despite the fact that this repast had already bumped me up a pants size) made me rejoice the arm-twisting. It was mellow and tender, without either the too dense or toothachingly sweet characteristics found in many restaurant chocolate cakes...and the plump, juicy blueberries complemented the chocolate surprisingly well. Mmmmm...Beer, chocolate and blueberry is perhaps my new favorite flavor combo!
If there was any disappointment this evening, it was the creme brulee. While I appreciate the fact that the chef wanted the portion to be a generous one (because everyone knows the only thing better than dessert is a big dessert), it wasn't as well-set as we prefer. Not sure if it needed more time in the bath or the fridge, but I like my creme brulee a tad thicker in consistency than mayonnaise and this was a bit thinner than that. Not a huge deal, but I'm never happy if I can't find something to bitch about.
The only thing better than enjoying good food is enjoying it with good friends. Thanks for the rec and for joining us, Joan! :)
Overall, this was an exceptional dining experience that I'm going to classify as "Suthren Hawt Cuisine". It was well worth the drive and the $140 price tag ($50 of which was bar). Better watch your back, Paula Deen...you haz competition.