We would have had to go to Pearl no matter what, because our last meal at Red Tractor (previous occupant of this space) was so wretched that anything would be a step up. Fortunately, Pearl is more than that; it can hold its own among its impressive neighbours. I really hate it when rave reviews appear two days before we plan to visit a restaurant, but fortunately for us, Pearl doesn't take reservations, so we lined up shortly before 5:30. They were late opening, and the line stretched out behind us. It was like the early days of A Cote. Do they still line up at A Cote? Last time we did so, we were the only ones to be let in when the doors opened, and we felt sheepish. "Did you read the review in the paper?" someone asked. "In the Chronicle? Yes," I said, "and in the East Bay Express, and the Contra Costa Times." Why should I care if others think I just ran down there on Michael Bauer's command? I need to chill out.
All traces of Red Tractor have been obliterated. The long, narrow room evokes International Style and Manhattan in the '60's for me, but is not retro. The glass behind the bottles above the bar changes colour constantly; the soundtrack is uptempo jazz. There are a couple of low tables, but we were seated at a high table, on high stools with wide square cushions (quite comfortable). A photographer from Oakland magazine occupied a table, shooting food. She took some pictures of us, but we look like we just collected enough spare change from Oliveto patrons to pay for our meal, so I'm sure she was just being polite.
We didn't have oysters, but the raw stuff we had was all great. It came on glass plates and in large martini glasses -- don't drink too much, you'll do real damage. The tartare trio (tuna, salmon, halibut) came with individual portions of sea salt, but they were all quite well-salted already. Think of it as garnish and you won't sniff. Spicy ahi tuna poke wasn't that spicy, which was good; it would have fit nicely into the spectrum we sampled in Hawaii. (Can I ask for one shoutout to fusion food created by poor people without starting another class war? Thank you.) Shrimp ceviche with diced peaches and heirloom tomatoes was just terrific, better than you would expect shrimp ceviche to be. Someone's watching the markets: peaches and tomatoes were all over the menu. Heirloom tomato gaspacho was thick enough to eat with a fork, and suitably intense. Sweetcorn fish chowder was, in fact, a rather thin corn chowder with some chunks of fish in it, and less successful.
Bruschetta (am I allowed to worry about servers who can't pronounce the word?) with goat cheese, caramelized onions, and grilled peaches was one large slice; tasty, but a real bitch to share. (Patricia Unterman complains about being encouraged to share small plates, and I see her point.) Pan-fried rice cakes with scallions were all right (reminiscent of what we do with leftover risotto, but not as creamy) but the "spicy smoky fries" were a waste: they looked like supermarket French fries dusted with paprika, and tasted of BBQ potato chips. Go have fries at A Cote afterwards, if you must.
We didn't try the pasta mains or larger plates of fish, which didn't look as appealing. Instead, we went for dessert, none of which sounded like creations, but all of which matched the raw stuff in quality: an ice-cream sundae with three large scoops of gelato (chocolate-hazelnut, Tahitian vanilla, triple-espresso coffee), Scharffen Berger chocolate sauce, bananas, whipped cream, and toasted chopped hazelnuts; peach-blueberry crisp with vanilla gelato; three large scoops of fruit sorbet. Mine was the crisp, and I was expecting something nice, comforting, and unspectacular, but was surprised: the gelato was intense and stood up to the rest of the dessert, the topping was crisp without being dry, and the fruit was cooked just right. What I had of the other desserts was good, and their owners pronounced themselves satisfied.
Small plates (large glasses?) were $6-12 (mostly on the high side), desserts $6-7. There were wines by the glass, including some reasonably-priced (though tiny -- I saw one being poured) flights, and sake by the glass or flask, but I had a glass of Pyramid Hefeweissen. Pearl replaces Grasshopper (booted due to menu stagnation) on our list. I hope they can maintain their initial momentum. --PR