For a brief shining moment or two back in San Francisco's pre-dotcom glory days, Miss Pearl's Jam House represented a new wave of funky, envelope-pushing eateries then enlivening the dining scene. Located at the rocker-friendly Phoenix Hotel, it reflected that Let's Party! spirit with an irresistible combination of tropical decor, potent island cocktails, and a Trader-Vic's-on-acid cooking style that didn't sacrifice California élan for too much stolid authenticity. Chef (and future TV host) Joey Altman crafted a menu that laced signature elements of Afro-Caribbean cookery with bright, playful accents and made Miss Pearl's a fun, frolicksome, place to drink, schmooze, and nosh.
A decade or so after serving its last Jell-O shot, consulting chef Altman and executive chef Robert Barker have revived the concept and taken it across the bay to Jack London Square in the Waterfront Plaza Hotel's extensive renovation project. Barker, a veteran of Arnaud's, Emeril's, and other estimable New Orleans restaurants, has revived favorites from the original location — black-eyed pea fritters, catfish fingers, the rainbow-colored Jell-O shots — while crafting equally whimsical flavors out of the kitchen's raw bar, stone oven, and "jerk" pit. The results are largely satisfying and worth exploring.
The new 8,000-square-foot space, located a few steps from Oakland's Inner Harbor, tries somewhat successfully to evoke the ambience of a tropical hideaway, accenting the lounge, dining rooms, and two outdoor patios with seashells, palm trees, ceiling fans, and rustic objets d'art. The menus, heavy planks fronted in abalone-shell collage, are a tactile pleasure in themselves. On weekends a steel drum band performs in the lounge. But there's an inescapable hotel-coffee-shop vibe to the place that feels less Kingston Harbour and more, well, Jack London Square.
Happily, the menu has plenty ambience of its own. There's a lot going on inside the house Jamaican patty, all of it yummy: chicken, beef, pork, raisins, chili peppers, almonds, and olives in a flaky cassava-fortified turnover crust. Jumbo prawns, skewered on spears of sugarcane and grilled, were moist, plump, smoky, and tasty draped in lush avocado-corn salsa. But the accompanying shrimp-andouille corn cakes were overly sweet and on the gummy side, the Dungeness crab flatbread was like a tiny, morning-after pizza, and the littleneck clam and sweet corn fritters were ponderous and largely flavorless. The Thai Sticks redressed the balance, however: crisp, hot, and lusty, these shrimp-shiitake spring rolls were even better dunked in the bracing mint-chili dipping sauce that accompanied them. And the stone oven's baked oysters were plump, sweet, and nicely accented with shards of spinach and pungent tasso ham.
Miss Pearl's excellent house sundae is simplicity itself — a slab of warm, fudgy brownie topped with a scoop of vanilla gelato, a dollop of whipped cream and a ribbon of bittersweet hot fudge, a perimeter of ruby-red strawberries adding color and vitamins. And the pineapple upside-down cake combines a thick ring of luscious baked pineapple with a base of brown-sugary cake, a scoop of sweet-tart coconut sorbet and a crowning paper-thin slice of crisply fried pineapple. But the best dessert on the menu is the tres leches cake, a sponge cake soaked in three types of milk (condensed, evaporated, and whole). The result is a dense, creamy delight rich with the flavor of fresh coconut, brightly accented with drizzles of strawberry and passion fruit coulis.
The hustle-bustle of the square's weekly farmers' market makes a festive backdrop for Sunday brunch on the patio. The pastry of the day might be a buttery, crumbly scone ribboned with shards of apricot. Entrées include a stellar catfish po' boy (two tender and succulent fillets of catfish in a light, tempura-like coating, drizzled with a peppery rémoulade and packed into a soft bun with lots of crisp shredded romaine); moist, luscious oven-roasted salmon served on a bed of fluffy couscous studded with almonds, raisins, and spiced cauliflower; and a thoroughly yummy breakfast-hash extravaganza of tender chicken, spiky andouille sausage, and roasted potatoes crowned with two perfectly poached eggs and accompanied by a red chili salsa and a green chili hollandaise.
Vegetarians can assemble a pretty fair repast. Starters include black-eyed pea fritters with red pepper sauce, gazpacho with mango and papaya, and three salads, while the sole vegetarian entrée, grilled eggplant with couscous and chutney, can be complemented with an array of side dishes: coconut or cilantro-peanut rice, sweet potato fries, twice-fried plantains with cumin-lime sour cream, coconut-cassava cakes, spicy black beans, and oven-roasted vegetables. Brunch options include waffles, French toast, a seasonal fruit platter, steel-cut oatmeal with raisins and walnuts, housemade granola with fresh berries, a spinach-mushroom scramble, and a grilled eggplant sandwich with roasted peppers, goat cheese, and aioli.
One of the most impressive things about the place is beverage director Geoffrey Perry's cocktail menu. There are 27 "sippin' rums" as well as a fine selection of ports, dessert wines, and spice-friendly beers. The wine list is impressive as well, offering a thoughtful array of six dozen at minimal markup, thirty available by the glass, with a dozen crafted here in the East Bay.
Best of all are the cocktails themselves, an inventive array worthy of the original Miss Pearl's. The Mmmmm-Tini shakes up Cruzan Mango rum, mango puree, coconut cream, orange juice, orange bitters, and Cointreau into a lush, fruity, potent milkshake. The Old Cuban — twelve-year-old Montecristo rum, fresh mint and lime, bitters, a hint of floral falernum syrup, and a splash of champagne — gets a top-shelf rendition here. The Caribbean Mule, a tropical variation on the Moscow Mule, combines Jamaican rum with ginger puree, lime, falernum, and ginger ale into a light, refreshing treat. The house Dark-n-Stormy (Black Seal rum and ginger beer) is strong, sweet, and delectable. But our favorite was the Spiced Pear Caipirini, a frosty martini glass of Brazilian cachaça, pear liqueur, pear puree, mashed ginger, lime juice, and nutmeg, a sippable, festive holiday in miniature — not unlike Miss Pearl's itself.