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Pearl brings Middle East flavors to Petaluma

Speculation abounded as rumors that the new restaurant in Luma’s place was named Pearl. Most figured it was likely to be a seafood restaurant, and though that is one of chef/co-owner Brian Letiner’s specialties, the cuisine can best be described as being inspired by the Eastern Mediterranean, but with bold and clean flavors of Sonoma County’s terroir.

Being unfamiliar with that cuisine, I had little idea of what to expect on our first visit, but had been hearing only good things from fellow Petaluma foodies. As luck would have it, my cousins Scott and Elizabeth were visiting from the East Coast and were looking forward to exploring the Petaluma food scene.

Only in town for two meals, they chose wisely from the many options I gave them, picking Pearl for brunch, in large part because they saw many dishes that would cater to their very restrictive diets. Co-owner Annette Yang tells me this is not unusual, because their menu is deeply rooted in traditional cuisines, which rely on simple, yet flavorful ingredients. There are plenty of veggie, and even a few vegan options available.

Annette and Brian grew up in Los Angeles, separately, before moving to the Bay Area in the early 1990s, both working in the restaurant industry, Annette in the front of house and Brian in the kitchen. As with many of our great chefs, Brian received his most influential training while at the venerable Chez Pannise, where he gained his appreciation for simple, rustic ingredient-driven dishes.

The two would meet at Gordon’s House of Fine Eats, a restaurant with a great reputation, which quickly became a San Francisco staple before running smack into the dotcom recession of the early 2000’s. As fate would have it, Annette and Brian opened their first restaurant, the very popular Nettie’s Crab Shack, on Union Street, just prior to the crash of 2008.

“With seating for 150, we had to adapt quickly in order to survive,” says Annette. “We went to the bare-bones minimum, which meant Brian was hands on with every order and I waited on every customer.” This was a blessing in disguise because this hands-on approach is something they have brought to Pearl, and is something that Petalumans have come to expect from their better restaurants.

After six good years at Nettie’s, the couple recognized that San Francisco had changed, and maybe lost some of its luster. They pulled up roots and relocated to Portland, where they opened Le Viux, featuring western Mediterranean cuisine. Their refreshing take on Spanish, Italian, French and North African cuisine was well received, but Portland was simply a transitional spot for them, as it is with many. They always knew they wanted to return to the Bay Area.

“When we came to Petaluma, we found it to be vibrant and bustling,” continues Annette. “We also really appreciate Petaluma’s pride in its ag roots. Because the area’s agriculture heritage still plays a strong role in its economy and its character, we have a great selection of local products to choose from.”

Petaluma also supplies a healthy stock of culinarily sophisticated clientele, which truly appreciate and support restaurants that rely on local ingredients, no matter what the cuisine. Sourcing from places like FEED (Sebastopol) and Sonoma County Meat Co., voted best butcher shop the past three years running by the North Bay Bohemian, helps Pearl tap into local resources. Libations are also local heavy, with plenty of North Bay wines and Bay Area beers on tap, including two from Petaluma’s HenHouse Brewing.

Annette and Brian did not set out to create something distinct within the city, but merely wanted to offer the same great food they eat at home. But as it happens, Pearl does offer something unique, both by genre, but also because Brian, an avid reader of classic cultures, was naturally drawn to the Middle East’s and North African’s time-honored flavors, giving Pearl’s menu a nice balance between the traditional and the modern.

“We love big flavors, so although not claiming to replicate these traditional cuisines exactly, our menu is certainly inspired by them,” says Annette. “And because we are a daytime restaurant, we don’t want guests to feel weighed down at the end of their meal.”

This is something that struck me immediately upon departing from Pearl after our first two visits. Even stuffed, with fond memories of bold new flavors, we were not incapacitated by an overuse of butter, fats and other heavy or processed ingredients.

For those unfamiliar with a new restaurant’s cuisine, I recommend visiting with at least a couple of friends, so you can try more than just one or two dishes. This will not only afford you the best chance of learning about the restaurant’s flavors, but will often reveal one of two standout dishes for your palette that you might not have necessarily been drawn to simply based on the menu description. That being said, there was not a dish during either of our visits that we would not order again, although several rose to the top for sure. The fish stew is simply divine, and is one of Annette’s favorites too.

Being ingredient-driven, the menu changes regularly, but that is where Pearl’s luster shines through. With many unfamiliar words in the menu’s descriptors, like Merguez (mildly spicy lamb sausage) and Halloumi (firm sheep’s milk cheese), in just our second visit, we were able to confirm our trust that Pearl serves up unique and tantalizing flavors, no matter what is in season, or which foreign words they use to describe them.

A few dishes have already become crowd favorites, so will stay, like the Shakshuka, which is a chickpea, fava, and tomato stew, with griddled halloumi, and a baked egg. Other staples are the cassoulet, lamb burger and probably the brisket. But even these may adjust slightly in order to take advantage of the seasonal changes, as with the cassoulet which swapped in snap peas for artichoke from one visit to the next, to go along with the dish’s slow-cooked tabais beans, Toulouse sausage, duck confit and poached egg.

Other hits were the Levantine spiced brisket, with the best seasoned scrambled eggs I have ever had, the Moroccan hangtown, the chicken paprikash, and the smoked trout and ricotta jar, with house-made Jerusalem bagel.

Equally unique is Pearl’s drink menu, which was as hard to choose from as their brunch menu. The house ginger ale is juiced to order and a ginger fan’s dream come true. Just one sip, and you already feel healthier. The daily lemonade, which during our visit was cucumber, rose and geranium, was excellent, as were the coffee cocktails, but I could not resist the vanilla limeade, which are two of my favorite flavors.

Another rare feature of Pearl is that tipping is not allowed. However, unlike shops that add a surprise “service fee” at the end of your bill, Annette and Brian believe in truth in pricing, so nothing more is required or asked for above the price you see on the menu. They did this to give their employees an appropriate wage, as well as wage stability. With this model, the ups and downs suffered by most in the restaurant service industry are transferred to the owners, where it belongs. It offers employees a more stable income, while giving everyone an interest in the restaurant’s ultimate success.

However, this no-tipping model only works when there is an owner presence, which Pearl clearly has and does not plan on changing. “We opened the restaurant because we love food and love to serve, so enjoy every minute with our staff and our guests,” continues Annette, and it shows.

The staff is bright, friendly and attentive, and is invested in your experience. So, instead of rewarding the server only, with the bonus of a tip because of your excellent meal and service, this model encourages you to show your gratitude by returning for future meals, which benefits everyone that made your meal what it was.

Describing Pearl’s cuisine with definiteness would be difficult. More appropriately, what they offer is ingredient-driven dishes, inspired by classic recipes, that will leave you more than satisfied physically, while blowing away your taste buds with clean, fresh and brilliant flavors.

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