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Mr. McClain's food is unpretentious, simple yet extremely creative, stimulating and sophisticated enough to attract staid diners to hopping Pearl. His dishes are a masterpiece of progressive layers of flavors, textures and heat.
By Simone Zarmati Diament
Once you exit the street, past the dark entrance cordoned off by velvet ropes - just a formality for early diners - and reach the top of the white staircase, an orange eerie light envelops you, infusing a supernatural glow to everything, from the gauzy curtains billowing at the floor-to-ceiling windows to the several strands of thick pearls hugging the neck of the very pretty, white-clad hostesses, a symbol (the pearls of course) of the fabled Pearl Restaurant and Champagne Lounge at Nikki Beach, Penrod's Beach Club.
What started as one of the first Euro-style nightspots in South Beach is no longer mimicking the French playgrounds for the sun chasing rich and beautiful. It is now the trendsetter, having exported the Nikki Beach concept to St Tropez, Marbella, St. Bart, Acapulco and other swanky destinations.
The orange light permeates the sunken in bar with shark fin-shaped barstools, right in the middle of the restaurant, that divides the huge space into dining area and lounge and dancing floor. Glass shelves showcase bottles of Champagne and Cognac on the walls of the large dining room. White tablecloths as well as orange and white polka-dot tables speck a bare landscape with few diners until at around 9 p.m. when young and restless crowds drizzle in, eyes ablaze in the pinkish-orange light, adrenaline pumping as the techno music pounds louder and stronger as the night gets on.
"So, who's going to notice the cuisine?" one might ask. Serious diners will, if they come early enough to eschew the noise and the hip, from 7 to 9 or 9:30 p.m., which is when the crowd starts trickling in and DJ music starts pounding.
After several attempts to attract the serious dining crowd to Pearl, the Penrods have hit the nail on the head with Chef Jason McClain. No oddities on his menu, no Nuevo Latino, Asian-infused cuisine. Chef McClain steers away from the trendy to follow his own inclinations. He can afford to with the background he brings to Pearl: after all he comes from The Four Seasons Hotels in Philadelphia and New York, Narcisse, and he opened the Shoreclub's Serena and Nobu in South Beach.
Chef McClain food is unpretentious, simple yet extremely creative, stimulating and sophisticated enough to attract staid diners to hopping Pearl.
Standout first courses
Caviar is on the menu to please unenlightened tourists and jet setters. While you read the menu, a tasty bean pur�e with tomato and balsamic vinaigrette is brought to the table along with a basket of freshly baked breads, sending the message that the kitchen wants to please you. And indeed it does with a Mediterranean spiced carpaccio with tissue thin slices of lamb lining a plate full of rich and creamy hummus spiced with cumin and za'atar - a thyme-based Mediterranean spice, chickpeas, topped with watercress salad and a triangle of pita bread which encourages you and others to dip away. An intriguing and delicious combination of flavors and textures.
Mr. McClain is eager to satisfy diners and revels in layers of taste.
You can taste them separately or order them all with the Pearl seafood tasting ($24) a foursome of appetizers set on one tray. There's Cajun mini crab cake, moist and delicious with shredded sweet crab meat and a superb Mango avocado salsa; then there's a sort of fritto misto called Moroccan-spiced cuttlefish calamari, full of lightly fried crunchy rock shrimp and tender calamari rings, crispy broccoli rabe drizzled with Meyer lemon butter. From the sushi bar there's baked eel, perfectly lacquered and artfully set over sushi rice and topped with seaweed, and refreshing, deliciously citrusy, the red tuna ceviche melts on your tongue as your mouth puckers with a yuzu cilantro dressing.
This is Miami fusion at its very best.
A moderately priced standout that you can also order as a main course is a generous portion of small, plump clouds of delicate nutty-tasting Yukon potato gnocchi in an earthy braised veal sauce with chanterelle mushrooms and green peas, topped with shavings of Asiago cheese.
Of course, being Pearl, there is foie gras. This one is prepared two ways: hot seared and chilled terrine with roasted pears, cranberry compote and toasted brioche.
Simply wonderful main courses
Mr. McClain's entr�es are a masterpiece of gradual layers of flavors, textures and heat and borrow the best from different regions.
The Mediterranean grilled free range moist and tender chicken breast is stuffed with spinach and feta cheese, za'atar (a middle eastern spice based on thyme), sundried tomatoes and olives, drizzled with chicken jus reduced with sage, basil, black olives and extra virgin olive oil and served with a side of Peruvian purple potatoes.
Our Peruvian wild king salmon came actually from Canada; it was the "anticucho" sauce and the purple potatoes, blanched, roasted and saut�ed in the hot sauce that made it Peruvian. The thick slab of perfectly seared salmon fired up by the heat of hot aji panka amarillo (spicy yellow pepper), and sweeter aji panka rojo (sweet red pepper), was progressively tempered by the bed of guacamole or smashed avocado with lime juice, jalape�o, salt and pepper it was set on, and by the delightfully refreshing topping of hearts of palm, with pepper, yuzu and fresh cilantro.
Fish lovers will be delighted by the amazing combination of heartland America and Far East that the sweet and tender diver scallops with curried root vegetables offers. Simply pan-seared and finished with brown butter, the large scallops are served over sticky rice with oven roasted root vegetables: beets, sweet potatoes, boniato, shiitake mushrooms in a apple, red curry and coconut milk sauce, and topped with crunchy snow peas.
No two sides are alike
The Florida day boat (that's to indicate freshness) grouper, a thick slab of fish pan-roasted to encase a moist, flaky flesh and then oven-roasted and finished with white wine, is served with wild mushrooms and fresh fava beans and grits with a chives and mushroom bouillon spiked with ginger. Wonderfully simple and delicious flavors.
A risotto with artichokes and roasted peppers, spinach, basil, white wine, butter and parmesano reggiano set the stage for serrano ham - Redondolo, please!- wrapped veal tenderloin, browned, pan-roasted and finished in the oven.
Beef is not just plain Angus, but wet aged single farm raised Angus from Chairman Reserve Ranch. And, as all good meat should be prepared, it is simply seasoned with salt and pepper. Thick, juicy and cooked to order, the beef was enhanced by mashed potatoes rich with butter and garlic and studded with big chunks of tender lobster, asparagus tips and a sauce of shallots and veal stock reduced with Pinot Noir, perfectly complemented by the Pinot Noir from Carneros that the sommelier wisely recommended.
Pastry chef Andreia Dolabella desserts don't have the creative, adventurous spirit that Chef McClain's food deserves. However, the list is straightforward and crowd pleasing starting with Bananachocomania, a dramatic looking chocolate covered slab of banana cake layered with dark chocolate banana mousse with Expresso Ice Cream and topped with a sugar square symbolically repeating Pearl's pattern of dots.
The sugar loving crowd will be buoyed by the dulce de leche cr�me br�l�e under its thin ice of caramelized sugar; or the homemade sorbets like orange cranberry and green apple martini and pumpkin spice and walnut coconut ice cream.
For those who want to eat their cake and their neighbors' too, order a dessert platter with five different choices.
With the quiet and romantic terrace overlooking the surf and Mr. McClain's cuisine, The Penrods have set the tone for a chic and pleasant dining experience.