Classics revisited at The Black Pearl 

The old-school virtues of this Dunedin mainstay never go out of style.

Imagine the retro characters of Mad Men magically transported from ’60s Madison Avenue to the salty mists of Tampa Bay 2012. Where might Don Draper eat a special meal? Bern’s, for sure. But where’s that secret, intimate place off the beaten track for a romantic rendezvous on an expense account? You know… the decor says Deco, the lights are low, there’s a fresh red rose on every table and Sinatra’s piped in, crooning jazzy show tunes…

This culinary time machine is not a martini-induced hallucination. It exists, in all its glory, in delightful downtown Dunedin, just as you’re almost running out of Main Street on your way to the gulls of St. Joseph Sound.

Like Bern’s, The Black Pearl is a throwback. But who cares if you’re in a time warp when everything on the menu is fresh and impeccably sourced, prepared with care, and downright delicious? Every single appetizer, salad, entree and dessert is worth considering; in three different visits, there wasn’t a single misstep. The servers are attentive and manage to control the flow of courses, wine service, and general attention with great aplomb. On one visit early in the week, when they were only half full, a single mature server managed to handle the needs of the entire place without breaking a sweat. None of this team service that is in vogue — just traditional pampering.

The appetizers all aim to please. Who knew that such an old-fashioned dish as fresh lump Maryland crab imperial baked in a large scallop shell could taste so good? The accompanying crunch and acidity of the jicama slaw perfectly complements the creamy crab. A ceramic barquette of lemon horseradish sauce is presented on the side so you can control the level of tangy heat.

The earthy duck liver pâté is an architectural surprise. Long rectangular criss-crossed flatbread alternates with the delicious gamey bird. The dish rises up, up, up, from the plate until a final trio of crackers — perched on their sides — tops the pâté like flying buttresses towering above the sherried currants, Cumberland sauce, and raspberry squiggle.

My dining companion never understood the allure of fried green tomatoes until she discovered the Black Pearl version. Perfect cornmeal-coated slices of juicy, green tomatoes are stacked like golden brown pancakes, each topped with crab, avocado and applewood bacon. Swirls of balsamic reduction define the plate like a circular Mondrian with bright pools of green and orange oil infusions. Three dollops of remoulade dotted with tiny minced chives complete the composition.

Other stand-out appetizers include velvety butternut squash in al dente ravioli, floating in a sun-dried cranberry butter sauce, and succulent garlicky escargot in puff pastry.

All entrees are preceded by the signature Black Pearl salad — a tangle of organic greens, currants, Gorgonzola, and pine nuts with a sweet poppy seed dressing. It’s a simple salad and, while I have an insatiable sweet tooth, I’ve been surprised each time by how the dressing balances the tart greens.

The Long Island duckling would make any of the Mad men (or women) very happy with a slow braised semi-boneless leg teamed up with a crisp grilled breast in a balanced cranberry-apple demi-glace.

Every special I tasted is, indeed, special.

One of the appetizers “off the menu” features three small pools of rich, meaty gastrique topped by a scoop of soft polenta that envelops luscious crisp, bite-size cubes of pork belly. The creamy pork is reminiscent of transcendent, unctuous sautéed foie gras, but with the salty goodness that makes us worship bacon.

Surf & turf pot pie features cubes of juicy beef tenderloin & chunks of briny lobster mingled in a rich veggie-filled sauce under an impossibly flaky pastry crust flecked with golden cheese; Marie Callender’s this is not. It’s so good, it could replace your daydreams of… well, whatever.

A juicy pan-roasted pork chop seems the size of a Smart Car when it first arrives at the table. The meaty pork is oozing an outrageous stuffing of Brie & port wine-stewed fruit while resting on a custardy square of sweet potato bread pudding. Southern Comfort, chipotle, and plum combine in a sauce that adds layers of complementary flavor.

Chilean sea bass lyonnaise features a shoestring potato-wrapped filet on a bed of polenta with a melting goat cheese medallion and lemon butter-pine nut topping that adds the perfect note of tartness to the firm white fish.

The luxe dessert classics (bananas foster, crème brûlée, a warm and golden tarte tatin) meet standards forged in NYC’s glass and metal canyons, but even the most worldly of the Madding crowd’s taste buds might be surprised by the scrumptious black licorice ice cream. Even Don Draper, and the eye candy on his arm, would happily exit into the warm Florida night with their senses satiated.


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