As I head up I-75 and see the Tampa skyline in my rearview mirror, I wonder if a trip to the country will be worth it. In less than an hour we leave the speed of the interstate and turn onto Rte. 52 entering rural Florida. It takes just a few minutes longer to pass orange groves and wind through the country to finally turn onto St. Joe Road. That's where we find the utterly charming farmhouse that houses Pearl in the Grove and enter the magical glow surrounded by a white picket fence.
This homey spot on the outskirts of Dade City features the farm-to-table cuisine of its chef-owner Curtis Beebe, a former IT guy who turned his love for cooking into a new career that his website accurately touts as delivering handmade slow food with local ingredients on white tablecloths.
Since the Pearl is all about fresh, local and organic, it’s not surprising that the amuse-bouche is a beautiful piece of housemade mozzarella sprinkled with sea salt, cracked pepper and a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil. The flavors are exciting, and remind you that simple, fresh and local can still thrill.
On the heels of the amuse-bouche comes a basket of absolutely stunning fresh bread with organic butter. While the bread is in the shape of an oversize baguette, it is not the lighter-than-air crumb with crackling crust that you love from trips to France. Instead, it is dense, chewy and absolutely delicious. The house-made loaf with copious amounts of butter could be a meal in itself.
So we’re already on a roll when the appetizers arrive. Sweet potato chips sliced and fried to order are fresh, crispy and topped with coarse salt. These are really tasty, but have to take a backseat to Palmetto Creek pork skins flash-fried to order, served with smoky tomato aioli and fresh greens. They are just wonderful. The plate also has an unidentified pickled garnish that sends the dish into the culinary stratosphere.
The appetizer special, which is listed on an enormous floor-to-ceiling chalkboard, highlights cornmeal-crusted fried green heirloom tomato caprese topped with piquant gremolata.
The entrees also make your taste buds soar. Choice natural succulent Angus strip steak, cut in-house and seared on cast iron, arrives with creamy potato Dauphinoise and a vinegary steak sauce that’s really not necessary. You can add sautéed shrimp for the Pearl surf and turf, but the beef shines.
A whole organic poussin (young chicken) from Lake Meadows Naturals is lightly breaded in cornmeal and flour and fried until crispy, golden brown and bursting with juicy flavor — as are the fresh sautéed greens, and the red beans and rice with chunks of spicy sausage that complete the plate.
A beautiful fillet of sautéed catfish is absolutely smothered in huge pecan halves bathed in the nuttiness of brown butter. Most of the entrées come with creamy long grain rice cooked “risotto” style, lightly sautéed garlicky greens and a garden vegetable medley of yellow squash, zucchini, and al dente green beans, all just fresh and terrific.
Only the free range Palmetto Creek pork belly roulade disappoints. It’s rolled with caramelized onion and smoked over hickory, but on this night at least, it’s dry and robs the pork belly of its seductive lusciousness.
You can tell that Curtis, and his wife Rebecca, are restaurateurs who understand the interactions of food with wine. The wine list is very small but more diverse than most small lists that I come across. How many other lists, fewer than 20 bottles, include Riesling, Albariño, Grenache and Sauternes? Every bottle is affordable and also offered by the glass, so there’s no reason not to have vino that’s perfect for your dish.
The Pearl’s pastry chef visits your table with a sample plate to hawk her wares. We skip the lovely-looking cheesecake and chocolate-stout bundt cake and go directly for the dense chocolate pot de crème, covered with a layer of thick strawberry caramel topped with crème fraîche and a fresh strawberry fan.
Then there’s the riff on s’mores. A tall glass cylinder with a flared top is filled with honey ginger crumble, sea salt, ganache, bite-size chunks of chocolate brownie all topped with creamy toasted marshmallow.
The dessert that has our table oohing and ahhing, though, is the square of cornmeal buttermilk cake slathered with fresh strawberry jam and served aside a dollop of rich cream cheese frosting and scrumptious pecan brittle so that you can mix and match each bite.
We exit this glowing bastion of country gastronomy and head back toward the city, grinning from ear to ear, delicious leftovers in hand, knowing that a return visit is well worth the trip.
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