I was such a hurry to get into Pearl that I walked through a door that wasn’t even a door. Facing the quiet intersection of California Street and 23rd Avenue is a sort of quasi-entrance that probably functioned as just that in the space’s previous life as a corner drugstore, and if you encounter it partially open, it might just beckon to you the same way, too. In any event, my dinner date and I got there just in time to merge our party of two with another two-top and get to know each other better in the leather-upholstered corner booth. It’s just that kind of serendipity that characterizes Pearl’s atmosphere.
A project from the team behind next-door Pizzetta 211 — as well as figures from Zero Zero, 20 Spot, and others — this is a breakfast-lunch-and-dinner affair with separate strong points for each. (Aren’t we all a little over places that open only for a four-hour dinner service, five nights a week?) A wood-burning oven anchors most of the menu, but many of the finest dishes don’t pass anywhere near the flames. While seafood is the strongest theme, it’s not exclusively so; for every mussel in escabeche, there’s a floret of cauliflower that’s just as worthy of your attention.
But to begin with breakfast, the requisite avocado toast and granola are present and accounted for, although the real treasure is the umami-laden toasted farro bowl ($11) with a slightly chilled soft-boiled egg standing slightly apart from the warmth of the shiitakes, the bacon, and the barely withered greens. It’s fortifying, and without administering a silent lecture on the importance of adaptogens. If you want something that makes a more obvious companion to a mug of coffee — and that coffee might come in a mismatched mug reading “Happy, Joyous, and Free” — go for a wood-fired bagel with a schmear, smoked salmon, capers, and onion ($9).
Brunch subsumes breakfast, with only a couple of repeat dishes — and no bagels on the weekends, sadly. Instead, the ethos of a bagel-all-the-way migrates to a smoked trout tartine with farmer’s cheese, pickled onions, frisée, fried capers, and chives ($12). But the real star is the Eggs in Purgatory ($15), that magnificent assemblage of lamb sausage, spicy tomatoes, rosemary polenta, and lightly toasted slices of bread. The skillet looks as though it’s about to overflow, spilling porridge everywhere. It’ll bring you from purgatory to the Pearl-y gates.
Those tomatoes are San Marzanos, by the way. It’s high summer and this is apostasy, but sometimes, a canned tomato is superior to any heirloom. This is one of those times.
An omelet with herbed goat cheese, confit cherry tomatoes, and fried shallots ($14) was outmatched by its home fries, gently pressed and split open so that the heat entered the core of the fingerlings to crisp them from the inside out. Notable mostly for its texture, a Dutch Baby ($13) was soft and airy enough that it could barely hold its shape, happily disintegrating further under its whipped cream and slivered almonds. The accompanying strawberry preserves had a whiff of kids’ menu to it; something like apricot would have worked better.
Dinner scores. Of all the drinks, the Coastal Scrub — a gin martini amplified by grapefruit, citrus, honey, and garbage tea tincture — possessed the most intrigue, as it started out with the intensity of perfume and uncoiled into something summery and light as the ice melted. Vernal from start to finish, the Farewell to Spring (Amaro D’Arancia Rossa, Pinot Gris apertiif, citrus, and prosecco) was a purer spritzer, while strawberry-peppercorn shone forth in the Scarlet Columbine.
Start softly — but also not. A halved soft egg ($5), topped with boquerones and a spoonful of thyme breadcrumbs, primes your palate like a tug on the choke on an outboard motor, while the perfectly tender mussels escabeche ($12) arrived very unlike those at Cafe Boho’s: not in a broth, but on toasted levain with plenty of smoke and saffron. Cauliflower ($11) in a deeply toasted black-tahini hummus and a chermoula milder and more rounded than any chimichurri was the other small-plate standout, surpassing other fine but ultimately commonplace dishes like the blistered shishitos or the brandade fritters.
Surprisingly, the butter beans and not the gypsy peppers are what bumped the seared tombo tuna ($25) up a notch. Without question, though, the best dish was the handkerchief pasta ($19), soft and luscious noodles under a dusting of grana padano and white bolognese sauce that exhibited just the right amount of restraint. At first blush, the entire thing looks overwrought, or as if it were in some middle phase of disintegration as every component slowly fused together — and that’s exactly how it ought to be. Compared to the respectable plate of spaghetti ($18) in which the anchovies and the tomatoes and the garlic somehow kept their distance from one another under an even more generous application of breadcrumbs per square inch than the soft egg, the handkerchief’s unity was genuinely gratifying.
Pearl is a challenging interior, ringed by a low-ceilinged upstairs gallery that, for better or worse, functions as a liquor cage. The wine racks are the closest thing to a focal point, and obviously they have to be kept out of direct sunlight, but Pearl isn’t doing itself any favors by keeping cleaning supplies visible through a transom. If it had room for another row of five tables-for-two, it would be perfect — although it’s considerably bigger than Pizzetta 211. But the bottom floor is all smiles and affability, and it almost feels as though there are two different rooms. Climb in through a window if you have to, or just find the real door.
Pearl, 6101 California St., 415-592-9777 or pearl-sf.com
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