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 the county lanes that lead to the restaurant and you'll 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.
What's that old saw about the journey 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 that a trivial distinction. Look at the menu in the simple converted wooden house and you'll see a hint of the other kinds of farming nearby. Black-eyed and field peas, kumquats and vidalia 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 Beebe's 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. There's 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 Beebe's thick and tangy homemade steak sauce and a slice of savory red potato pie loaded with creamy blue cheese.
Beebe's 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. It's still tasty, especially when scooped onto the incredible spongy bread made in house every day.
Desserts range from a homemade biscuit cookie slathered in fresh strawberry puree to a simple trifle constructed of layers of whipped cream and custard dotted with tiny bits of kumquat. Hearty, if not exciting, but well worth ordering if only to have the extra time to enjoy Pearl's surprisingly rich coffee.
That'll also give you time to talk to Beebe, whose tiny kitchen is always within clear sight (and occasional shouted remark) of the dining room. There are 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 you're used to dining in downtown St. Petersburg, or Tampa's suburban sprawl, you likely need the drive out to the Pearl. It'll 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 restaurant's simple, heartfelt cuisine should help you carry that feeling all the way back to your real life.
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