There’s so much more to Mediterranean food than is usually expressed stateside.
The region offers everything from undiscovered Turkish delights to slowly trending Israeli dishes. Petaluma’s new restaurant Pearl is attempting to bring the lesser known stars of the cuisine to the table with a focus the on eastern Mediterranean—Turkey, Israel, Syria and beyond—with a sprinkle of Moroccan and French influences.
Behind the menu are Brian Leitner and Annette Yang, who previously owned Nettie’s Crab Shack in San Francisco and, most recently, Le Vieux in Portland, Ore. The two began experimenting with Mediterranean cuisine one country at a time; France one month, Morocco another. Leitner, a Chez Panisse alum, unites them all. The menu changes occasionally, according to seasonality and availability, and some ingredients stand out, not often seen on local menus around the Bay Area.
Take the stuffed sardine ($10), for example. Expert home cooks across the Mediterranean have been stuffing the tiny fish for centuries, but rare is the Bay Area chef willing to take on the meticulous task. At Pearl, the single fish arrives topped with cherry tomatoes and cilantro, hiding a herbaceous tabbouleh salad inside. The fish has a bright sea flavor and delicate texture, highlighted by the tabbouleh’s chunkiness. It’s a bold, fun appetizer that made me wish stuffed sardines would, one day, reach crudo-level popularity.
The charred okra (another seldom-seen ingredient) with preserved lemon ($10) is spot-on. Okra is a tricky little vegetable, and one extra minute in the heat can turn it to mush. Pearl’s is crunchy and fresh. The wood-roasted beets ($10) are the third appetizer we try. In this dish, too, the textures are remarkable, from the velvety-rich beet to the snappy beans and the light dressing.
Even in a restaurant fielding wild mix of influences and inspirations, some things are better left true to their origins. The shakshuka ($18), an Israeli staple, is one such dish. This vibrant, tomato-heavy stew is meant to simmer on the stove or in the oven until its raw eggs and sauce become one. In Pearl’s version, served with a side of pita ($2) and containing the addition of chickpeas and griddled halloumi cheese, the eggs are perched on top. Playful as the interpretation might be, it undermines the shakshuka’s messy, hearty appeal and denies
it the collision of flavors it’s famous for.
The dessert to right this wrong is the dreamy Moroccan rice pudding ($8). With a bite to its texture, the pudding is made from Madagascar pink rice and topped with rhubarb compote and almond flakes. It’s delicate and fragrant, refreshing and comforting. I’ve never seen this rice before, on a menu or at a supermarket. Leitner’s clearly showcasing another star ingredient. Is the pudding Mediterranean? Moroccan? Local? When something tastes this good, who cares.
Pearl, 500 First St., Petaluma. 707.559.5187.