31936 St. Joe Road, Dade City, 352-588-0008, pearlinthegrove.com
On the face of it, a trip to Dade City just to eat at a restaurant seems like a tough sell to most Tampa residents, let alone people on the other side of the Bay. Forget about the fact that many people regularly head out for long drives to favorite eateries, crossing bridges and braving traffic for a favorite dish. I guarantee that the journey out north and east to the hinterlands, to Pearl in the Grove, will be different than that, and likely more enjoyable.
Pull off of I-75 onto Curley Road and the air is crisper, cleaner, the view across fields and farms unobstructed by strip malls, the road rolling over actual hills. Turn onto the first of of the county lanes that lead to the restaurant and youll drive by two-story clapboard houses in various states of repair, property stretching for acres behind them, horses and tractors sharing space in the grass. And everywhere are groves of low-slung trees liberally speckled with the bright orange of near-ripe citrus.
Whats that old saw about the voyage being more important than the destination? Well, sometimes both are worth the trip.
Pearl is not, technically, in an actual grove, but citrus trees are near enough at hand to make it a trivial matter. Look at the menu in the simple converted wooden house and youll see a hint of the other kinds of farming nearby. Black-eyed and field peas, kumquats and Vidala onions, strawberries and turnip greens. Owner/chef Curtis Beebe sources as much as possible from his neighbors, resulting in a brief menu that changes frequently, but is always evocative of Dade City and the seasons.
Another reason for that brief menu is Beebes experience -- Pearl is his first restaurant and his first professional cooking gig. His story follows a familiar path, from thirty years in an IT career, to a passionate hobby of cooking for family and friends, to paid catering work and underground dinners. To Pearl.
Perhaps because of his technical background, Beebe is smart enough to keep things simple. Theres a salad built on local greens, local herbs, and tart goat cheese laced with dressing flavored with kumquats and onions from the farm next door. He slices and fries sweet potato chips to order, topped with a sprinkle of coarse salt.
Catfish beignets could get out of hand, but not the way he does it -- hunks of fish barely bound together with sauteed onions and fresh herbs, battered and deep fried a rich brown. Free of filler, they hold together admirably through the first few bites, the fish shining through. Soup is gumbo, the thick brown base crowded with chicken thigh and discs of dark sausage, cut by a plentiful dose of almost crunchy okra.
Main courses are, if anything, even simpler. Beebe gives those catfish beignets an entree treatment by placing them atop griddled grit cakes dotted with savory smoked tomato. Steak is prime Angus ribeye in need of a hotter sear and a lot more salt, with a side of Beebes thick and tangy homemade steak sauce and a slice of savory red potato pie loaded with creamy blue cheese.
Beebes lasagna is a bit more complex and, perhaps because of that, a bit less successful. His homemade pasta melts into the cheesy, garlicky mass, big hunks of soft mushroom the only solid food to latch onto. Its still tasty, especially when scooped onto the incredible spongy bread made in house every day.
Thatll also give you time to talk to Beebe, whose tiny kitchen is always within clear sight (and occasional shouted remark) of the dining room. Theres even a few old wooden chairs on the patio if you want an opportunity to wonder at the sheer number of stars you can see without the light pollution of the Bay area.
Yes, if youre used to dining in downtown St. Petersburg, or Tampas suburban sprawl, you likely need the drive out to the Pearl. Itll give you time to leave the hustle and bustle behind and slow your thoughts from monkey brain to country life, the necessary mindset to enjoy the charm of Beebe and his Pearl.
And the satisfied glow and full belly from the restaurants simple, heartfelt cuisine should help you carry that feeling all the way back to your real life.
Photo: Katie Machol.