DADE CITY — Sitting down for a first dinner at Pearl in the Grove, we are almost immediately greeted with a bowl of boiled peanuts. I have never figured out the attraction to this Southern snack staple. But we gratefully accept them as a kind gesture and proceed to the menu. Weeks later I learned that the peanuts are a bellwether of sorts.
"The boiled peanuts are a good indication on whether people are going to get what we're doing or not," chef-owner Curtis Beebe says. "If they get excited to see them, there's a good chance they're going to have a good time. If they get a funny look on their face . . ."
Certainly, there is a Southern accent to the menu, and for the most part, the food is smart and simple, sometimes deceptively so.
Let's start with the catfish beignets. If there is a signature dish at Pearl, this would be it, and it shows up in several applications; as an appetizer ($7), as an entree with smoked tomato grits and vegetables ($16) and as an addition to the steak to make a surf and turf ($24). The word "beignet" brings to mind fried dough, and there's really none of that here, but that's okay. The fritters are light and crispy, mostly fish, held together with a little egg and cornmeal and flavored with a little sweet onion. The big flavor comes in the remoulade sauce on the side. There are feuds in New Orleans over whether remoulade is based on mayonnaise or mustard; count Beebe in the mustard camp. He starts with a pungent Dijon, then adds horseradish and other spices. It's the best kind of punch in the face.
The grits that come with the catfish entree are also a unique taste. It doesn't make sense that smoked tomato would be delivered in the texture of a grit cake. But then you're just glad they do. The smoky acidity of the tomato and the creaminess of the grits play well together with the sweetness and crispiness of the catfish.
A strip steak ($20) is seared in cast iron and cooked to specification. A decent piece of meat, though ours was a little underseasoned. The potato tart on the side adds a nice kick with blue cheese, though.
Vegetable accompaniments depend on the farm that day. Beebe tries to use seasonal and local as much as possible. We tried mustard greens, black-eyed peas, field peas, cabbage and green beans. The braised cabbage with balsamic was the favorite. The peas were well cooked but needed acidity to brighten them up.
One of the starters is a plate of sweet potato chips ($4) that Beebe cuts and fries after they are ordered. One day a customer asked if the chips could be dressed up a bit with some blue cheese and balsamic vinegar. Beebe thought that was a good idea. So now that's on the menu, too, named after the customer, Geeno's chips ($8).
Another experiment that the Pearl is trying is Sunday family dinners ($18 per person). It's an opportunity to get to know your neighbors: Our party of two became a table of eight with the addition of another party of two and then four more. Once the table is full, platters of food from a set menu that changes weekly start coming out. And if you're doing it right, conversation starts with people who could become your new friends. If Dade City is too far for dinner, a late lunch on Sunday is worth considering.
Desserts are a combination of housemade offerings and others from a local baker. There is a limited selection of beer and wine.
Truth be told, even the boiled peanuts were pretty good.
Jim Webster can be reached at jwebster@ sptimes.com or (727) 893-8746. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.