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Pearl Jam

Service outshines a menu that comes up short

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"Well, you've made a liar out of me," our server told us apologetically. "We don't have that wine I said we did -- it was recently 86ed." His honesty had such appeal that another bottle would easily do.

That was my first impression of the new Pearl Restaurant Bar Catering (formerly Ethan's) in Elizabeth. Pearl had a soft opening at the end of April. By summer I would have expected the operation to be in full stride, but Pearl is still picking its way through reinvention. While it's often difficult to innovate and brand a restaurant concept in a location that has housed other restaurants, one of Pearl's co-owners, Penny Craver, already performed this brilliantly in her first foray into the restaurant biz in Plaza Midwood. Craver transformed a site that had been home to just about every concept -- from Chinese to Tex-Mex -- into the popular and successful Southern-comfort food emporium, Dish.

Nikki Eason joins Craver, whom she met in the music biz (Craver used to own Tremont), in the ownership of Pearl. Eason, who once did the nine to five gig in the corporate world, had a catering company on weekends. Once she decided to follow her passion, Eason took the full-time plunge, leaving her suits behind and developing the events and catering arm of La Paz.

The combination of the two owners' strengths at Pearl seems promising. Given Eason's track record, one expects service to be reverential -- and it is. She is the watchful GM here. Additionally, five of the servers who had been at Ethan's chose to stay on, thus helping the restaurant's neighborhood continuity.

The 100-seat Pearl (40 are in the private dining room on the second floor) in the expansive gray-shingled house has both the feel of a well-loved afghan and the spirit of a neighborhood hangout.

The idea -- and the name -- behind Pearl is seafood, which is why two fishing lines dangle from the property toward Caswell. Not that you catch oysters with a line, but then oysters are not on the current menu at Pearl, either. I had been expecting a raw-bar seafood place. But as Eason explained, "We wanted seafood, not fish camp." Not many people in Elizabeth or downtown think fish camp anymore. Most associate seafood with sushi. At least that's the demographics Wholefoods -- which is locating in Elizabeth -- is counting on.

Craver wanted to fill the seafood void in the Elizabeth/Plaza Midwood/Presbyterian Hospital area; Eason wanted a venue to host events. When Ethan's came up for sale with a private room already booked with events, these co-owners decided to make a go of it and once again revive this old house.

Unfortunately, the one part lacking at Pearl is the food. The menu is short and many of the items -- such as pineapple salsa on the fish -- reflect Eason's southern California preference. The menu's redundancy (lemon risotto accompanies four dinner entrees while Parmesan grits graces two) gives the feeling you're at a banquet with only the chicken-fish-vegetarian choices for dinner -- not at a restaurant.

Part of this dish cloning may be the fault of the kitchen. At the helm are co-executive chefs Justin Brinegar and Brett Milanese, who, as Eason noted, have not yet graduated from culinary school. This inexperience makes Pearl's dishes more like an artist's study of subject -- lacking full blown detail and only serving as a reminder of what the intent is for the full canvas. While Craver and Eason were probably not looking for a powerful chef, Craver had gotten lucky when establishing Dish when she got young (and experienced) chefs like Jamie Lynch (now a sous at Table) in that kitchen.

The crab cake is an example of the inexperienced kitchen. The cake is crisply seared, but the interior is dry and the cake is mortared with a tedious tartar sauce. While the oven roasted portobello with spinach and feta appetizer is more successful, it doesn't really whet the appetite. The salads are better; fresh greens are hard to mess up.

The entrees proved better. The succulent seared diver scallops offered the best of the lot, while the teriyaki salmon limped along as a distant second. It usually takes a few years of working under a barking chef to make a new chef's kitchen consistent. Experience should never be underestimated.

To be fair, Pearl's prices reflect the casual nature of the restaurant: Starters range from $5 to $8 and dinner entrees from $12 for a portobello stack to $22 for a 12-ounce prime rib. As Eason explained, they want Pearl to be a comfortable neighborhood spot serving healthy foods. Indeed, with its large windows, wood table tops and quiet color palate, Pearl provides the right backdrop for conversation.

Here's a pearl of wisdom in the restaurant industry: Diners can forgive mediocre food if the service is outstanding, and the service at Pearl is worth writing home about.

To contact Tricia regarding tips, compliments, or complaints or to send notice of a food or wine event (at least 12 days in advance, please), opening, closing, or menu change, fax Eaters' Digest at 704-944-3605, leave voice mail at 704-522-8334, ext. 136, or e-mail tricia.childress@creativeloafing.com.

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