In accordance with our promises to not buy each other a birthday present this year and instead, take the other one out to dinner, Adam took me to Pearllast night. After hearing our mate Matty wax lyrical about this place, we decided that it would be a nice place to celebrate my 24 years on this earth.
Located on the not-really-fashionable Church Street, the restaurant and bar is a well, pearl, amidst the drab furniture warehouses and business centres of Amcor and the like. On the outside, it doesn’t really look like much. It looks like an average bistro with a plastic-covered outdoor dining area, rather than one of Melbourne’s 2-hatted restaurants. In fact, one could easily miss the place while driving down Church St because it’s that blehhhh (note: Once you’ve gone past the river, that’s when you’ve gone too far). Once you enter the door (that opens on its own), however, you are greeted by friendly faces and a warm but effortlessly modern and uncluttered dining room.
The dining room wasn’t so busy when we rocked up at 7pm so we had the undivided attention of a pretty blonde waitress who was prompt with giving us our menus, water and home-made bread fresh from the oven that was designed to break apart accompanied by drizzle of lime-infused Cobram Estate extra virgin olive oil and a sprinkling of Murray River sea salt. (The photo of the dining room was supposed to give you guys a better idea of how nice the place looked but the stupid lady in orange just ruins the photo).
Although Pearl has an extensive wine list with a commendable list of wines available by the glass, I decided to grab a cocktail this time. In this case, I ordered a “Thai Me Up” ($17) which, I guess, was supposed to encapsulate the flavours of Thailand in one neat glass. It was a fiery combination of gin, limoncello and pomegranates, topped with fresh mint and basil. As a cute little touch, half a red chilli was placed on the rim of the glass which Adam cheekily took off and proceeded to down all the seeds into my drink. Not funny .
Prior to our entrees, we received an amuse bouche of a fried taro cracker topped with crab meat, red grapefuit, pomegranate and stuff you’d find on a complimentary plate of salad/herbs at a Vietnamese restaurant. The little morsel was then topped with Yarra Valley salmon roe. The result tasted like, well Vietnam. But without the nastiness associated with Springvale teenyboppers and their fake Guess bags and Supre harem pants.
My entree was called “an ever changing tasting plate of raw, cooked and cured fresh water, ocean and shell fish” ($32), which changes according to the seasons. For easy identification, I’ve labeled all the elements in the photo so you will know which little blob I’m referring to. Each element was very different from the other, which made this dish an exciting exhibit of contrasting textures and flavours. The mahi-mahi (a type of white fish) pastrami, for example, may have smelt a bit like a Connex’s passengers armpits on the 8:15am city-bound train but it tasted sweet compared to the crunchy crust around it which was spicy. Meanwhile, the scallop tartare was tangy and perhaps a bit overwhelmed by the sour citrus dressing that masked the natural sweetness of the scallop fresh. The “rain forest pearls” were in fact a “caviar” made by some kind of fruit which I couldn’t identify and while they did nothing to add to the taste of the scallop, their sparkling absence would have made this dish naked.
While the soused Murray cod flesh (soused, meaning cooked in mild vinegar) was also sour, it was more successful than the previous dish in that the vinegar penetrated the flesh well yet was also able to retain its natural flavour. The fish was served with some cooling slices of cucumber, some green chilli and Yarra Valley salmon roe, the combination creating all sorts of chaos in my taste buds. Finally, after all that excitement the more demure slices of sashimi tuna acted like a bit of a cleanser. So clean and sleek was it that it barely needed the wasabi or the soy and mirin sauce that was provided.
Adam’s entree, the wok-fried pearl meat with shitake, chive buds, ginger and soy. At $42 a pop, this is not a cheap entree. In fact, when an entree is more expensive than half the mains on the menu, you know that it is going to be super special. The reason why it’s so expensive is because it comes from Broome (where else?!) and apparently, they only make 200kg of it annually with each single kg selling for $130ish. The byproduct of a South Sea Pearl (Silver Lip Pearl Oyster, if you like) whose pearl-making capabilities are beyond its use-by-date, it is carefully nurtured in the wild for that much longer before being shipped to posh restaurants on the East Coast in specially refrigerated trucks to keep it from spoiling. The taste: Well, it tasted a LOT like fishcakes and abalone and scallops, with the texture of abalone. It was certainly very good, the sauce tasting a lot like okonomiyaki topping but perhaps a bit too rich for poor Adam who was still nursing a cold. While we both loved the taste of the pearl meat, we both agreed that this was something that one would normally order once in a while rather than every time.
At this point, the place was filling up and the service was getting a little slow. Part of the reason why, I guess, was because a lot of the diners had no idea what half the stuff on the menu was and had to spend effing forever asking the waiters what this and that meant. Sigh. The great thing though was that each of the wait staff were patient and actually knew what they were talking about, even telling the diners little stories about the origins of the more obscure ingredients.
My wild baarrmundi ($41). It looked more like a dessert rather than a main and certainly tasted sweeter than a Trampoline gelato. A single crispy barramundi fillet, which was crowed with slices of orange and red onion, rested on a bed of slow-cooked chickpeas while a salad of preserved lemon, spearmint and pomegranates danced around it. In between the salad elements lay a sprinkling of pomegranate molasses to keep things a little interesting … though seriously, what the heck is up with this place and their obsession with pomegranates? I thought my dish was fine but perhaps just that. It was not as exciting as my entree and nor was it as good as anything that Adam ordered tonight.
Adam’s roast red duck curry ($42) though was definitely an experience to remember. Touted as Melbourne’s best red duck curry, this is a signature dish at Pearl. It comes in three separate bowls: 1) half a duck which has been slow-cooked and cut into pieces that easily peel away from the bone when prodded. It is covered in a rich, light-brown curry and garnished with fried shallots, 2) a deep-fried free-range poached egg that’s doused with a sauce made out of fish sauce, palm sugar, chilli, mint and half a lime so that you can adjust the taste according to your preference and finally, 3) a bowl of coconut rice. The thingie in the middle is some Chinese cabbage which is there to “refresh our palate.” My goodness, it was so good. The duck was unbelievably tender, which attributed to the success of this dish. It was so rich, so tasty and so filling too. In fact, Adam was so full after only a few spoonfuls that he signaled defeat and gave the rest of his dish to me which I ate without putting up a fight (naturally).
So full were we that we decided to omit dessert and instead, share a hot chocolate ($6). It was shame to skip dessert though, because the dessert menu actually sounded really good… and this is coming from someone who doesn’t call themselves a “dessert person.” Next time. So anyway, the hot chocolate… rather than receiving a substandard Milo lookalike, our hot chocolate came in three separate bits. You got a glass of hot chocolate (made with Valrhona chocolates) which looked a lot like a cappuccino and also a separate jug of warm milk and chocolate solids which you can add to adjust how chocolatey you liked your drink. I’m not a huge fan of overly sweet hot chocolates so in when the milk which the chocolate duds remained untouched.