Long before Pearl Jam existed, Miss Pearl's Jam House was rocking at San Francisco's Phoenix Hotel. With TV personality and cookbook author Joey Altman manning the kitchen, it was a tropical hot spot in the late '80s, serving Caribbean fare and Jell-O shots with a background of live music.
Almost 20 years later, the fictitious Miss Pearl has reemerged a little older and wiser. Like many restaurateurs, she's moved across the Bay, bringing her whimsical wares to Oakland's Jack London Square. Altman has returned as consulting chef, working with executive chef Robert Barker to create a New World/Caribbean menu with smatterings of Asian Rim, Creole and Cajun influences.
Conch shells and curios
Designer Michael Brennan (Domaine Chandon, Cortez) transformed the former Jack's Bistro into the sprawling seaside estate of an eccentric, cocktail-loving Miss Pearl. From a bar counter top made from faux sea treasures to a wall-mounted purse collection, it appears that owner Joie de Vivre gave him free rein to channel his inner Miss Pearl.
Brennan melded nautical and plantain styles in a playful fashion, breezing by a predictable Jimmy Buffett motif for a more nuanced, homey look that incorporates everything from conch shells to book-filled curios. Plus, the restaurant offers electric Bay views, particularly from the patios.
Energetic, eclectic menu
Fans of the original Miss Pearl's will relish that old favorites such as black-eyed pea fritters and crispy catfish "fingers" now mingle with new offerings, including the impish "mini skirt with nice buns" (three skirt steak sliders).
It's an energetic, eclectic menu that hawks coconut cassava cakes (a Filipino dessert offered here as a side), Jamaican pepperpot soup and corn succotash on a single page. Most options, however, are more familiar than exotic, and have been gussied up with creative sauces and seasonings.
The delicate, fresh ginger-hoisin glazed salmon was the night's winner, as it lay atop lemon-grass-scented black rice and a ginger-citrus beurre blanc. Covered with a sweet grilled pineapple salsa, this was quintessential tropical fare with a beautiful color contrast between the fish and rice.
Also satisfying was a moist Petaluma jerk chicken that is finished in a smoker. It's tasty, but really needed the side of sweet and spicy jerk sauce to give it life. Other jerk options include a Niman Ranch pork shoulder and a whole fish that is deboned after jerking.
The kids ordered nicely breaded chicken fingers, which they found tasty. Because the fingers arrived without even a sprig of parsley on the plate, they filled up on delicious, peppery Jamaican corn skillet bread instead. It wasn't the most balanced of meals, though, and would have benefited from at least a few grapes thrown on the plate.
The dessert menu arrived just as that beach vacation feeling had begun to sink in, making it easy to indulge. The individual key lime pie was good and fluffy, but a little short on that famous tart flavor. The molten chocolate cake with mint chip ice cream was a real plate-licker, however, and worth the required few minutes wait.
Bolder is better
All dishes on my visit were fresh and well-prepared, but I generally wished for a bolder taste to match the menu descriptions. Items such as sugar cane barbecue prawns or chipotle-orange "angry" pork tenderloin sounded vibrant, but what I ordered was a little flavor-phobic, as if the kitchen was told to conserve spice.
The crispy sweet potato fries, for example, were about the best I've had, but the advertised lime and chile were undetectable. Tostones, a popular Caribbean snack of twice-fried chunky plantains, were fine, but not zippy enough to make them worth the health hit. As with the fries, the accompanying sour cream dip was just too shy on the promised cumin and lime.
Bringing energy to JLS
Miss Pearl's is stacked with an efficient staff who kept us rolling at an even pace. Our server hustled for our poorly mannered table, picking up dropped spoons just seconds after they hit the ground and keeping our glasses full.
Miss Pearl's is already bringing needed vitality to Jack London Square. Plus, the new market, which promises to rival Seattle's Pike Place, is under construction. Together, they'll put the square back on the broader regional radar.
In the meantime, Miss Pearl's is worth checking out. With whimsical decor, live music and festive island fare, it's a wonderful spot to share with friends.
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