For years, Sabals was the go-to restaurant for fancy dining in Dunedin. In 1996, Kathy LaRoche bought out the Sabals owners and launched Black Pearl. So to this day, the location remains the go-to restaurant for fancy dining, just with a different name. • Its intimate room seats fewer than 40, making even murmured conversation possible. There are sumptuous upholstered chairs and tabletop rice-paper lanterns that cast soft, flattering light. Red roses punctuate expanses of white linen. You get the picture — it's where you go to get moony-eyed over dessert. And here's the kicker: Prices are reasonable. Not much sweeps above $30 and entrees include a very nice mixed green salad with Gorgonzola.
Last month, LaRoche and team closed for a couple of weeks to do some renovations and upgrades to the space, but her secret to longevity hasn't been through constant tinkering and reinvention. The menu remains much as it was a decade ago. The culinary aesthetic is what we used to refer to as continental, a term that seems to have grown murky as the "continent" in question has morphed into dozens of discrete cuisines.
These days LaRoche's son, Andy, is in the kitchen, along with Chris Artrip, and together they know their way around a demiglace, a Cumberland sauce and a Mornay. They believe heartily in butter and cream but manage to skirt being stodgy. For instance, the Black Pearl has an affection for black licorice (the third most polarizing food behind fruitcake and cilantro), showcasing the flavor in a luscious housemade ice cream and in tiny black pearl-sized housemade licorice candies that arrive with the check. And despite a range of classical preparations, the kitchen staff keeps things contemporary with the inclusion of ingredients like jicama and heirloom tomatoes, or with preparations like a crispy pork belly osso buco ravioli ($13.95; is it me, or is pork belly perilously close to Kardashian-level overexposure?).
Because the dining room is so small, people tend to make reservations, and the staff, all long-timers, often know guests by name. A strangely common phenomenon in downtown Dunedin, this familiarity is a by-product of being a beloved tradition. The flip side, of course, is that regular customers may be resistant to change. You will find the same escargots en pate feuilletee ($12.95) as in years past, the cap of flaky puff pastry giving way to a garlicky, buttery broth cloaking a passel of tender-chewy snails. And the twice cooked Long Island duckling ($31.95) dates back to just about the original menu, its leg moist and slow-braised, the breast rosy and crisp skinned, both paired with a sweet-tart cranberry apple demiglace. In short, if it ain't broke, don't mess.
I will say that a number of sauces are a hair sweet, and the wine list might include more boutique or unusual offerings (especially by the glass), but these are quibbles. In a couple of visits, I enjoyed a lump crab bisque, zapped with sherry ($9.95), every bit as much as veal paillards ($29.95), pounded thin, dredged in flour lightly, pan sauteed and then paired with a dusky marsala sauce and a crowd of crimini.
Often continental-style restaurants pull out all the stops with dessert offerings, but tend to leave vegetarians out in the cold. Black Pearl adheres to the former and thwarts the latter, with a couple of nice options. There's a shallow bowl of butternut squash ravioli with a cranberry butter sauce ($9.95) that's lovely but wintery — it might be nice to lighten it up for summer— and a wild mushroom ragout ($21.95) that goes veg-friendly with the removal of pancetta and veal demiglace, its splash of Jack Daniels a perfect marriage with the earthy mushrooms. For dessert you need to be a long-term thinker: The molten-center chocolate cake ($9.95) and puff-pastry topped apple tarte Tatin ($11.95) require 20 minutes to prepare, so order early. For my money it's the licorice ice cream ($6.95) all the way, the deep anise scent softened in creamy, sweet lushness. Even if you licorice haters are shuddering right now, the Black Pearl has enough broad appeal to explain its remarkable long run as the jewel of Dunedin.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses.