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Photo by Joe Szabo
Just a few of Pearl Street's offerings
A year ago, chef Karen Small shocked the local dining community by announcing that she was shutting down Flying Fig, her 23-year-old Ohio City bistro. The news was particularly distressing given that it followed two years of similar announcements from chefs and owners all over town. But the news wasn’t all grim: Small also revealed at the time that she and partner Jill Davis of Toast would be opening a European-style wine bar in its place.
Despite assertions that Flying Fig’s replacement was not going to be a “straightforward full-service restaurant,” Pearl Street Wine Market & Café, which opened in November, operates much like a full-service restaurant. Diners can make reservations, menus are provided upon seating, servers take orders, deliver food and drink, and handle payment.
The most dramatic changes are physical. Guests now enter and exit through the attached market, which features more open shelving for products and a built-in six-seat counter. Turn the corner and you land in the bar/dining room, which has been downsized thanks to a new wall separating it from a private dining room. Gone are any last vestiges of fine – or finer – dining, replaced by an open, informal, clamorous and somewhat spare space.
Ditching the ceremony in favor of the carefree means that diners are free to use the space to their liking. Don’t feel like settling in for an entire meal? Belly up to the bar for a round of black walnut Manhattans ($14) and a dish of bright green Castelvetrano olives ($6) before your dinner reservation elsewhere. Have a little more time and appetite on your hands? Snag a craft paper-topped table and unwind over a ham and cheese board ($35) and a bottle of white wine from the south of France ($28).
Four of us nearly made a meal out of that impressive board one night. Arranged on a square foot of slate were mounds of fresh-sliced country hams from Kentucky and Tennessee, a selection of soft, semi-soft and hard cheeses, pickled green beans, fruit, nuts, grainy mustard, breads, toasts and cultured butter. Not only is Pearl Street a great place to load up on tinned fish for the home pantry, it’s the ideal place to sample it onsite. Grab any tin in the market – sardines, razor clams, scallops, octopus, smoked mackerel pate – and the kitchen will plate it up ($5 plus the cost of the tin) with crostini, butter and pickles.
There are many appealing small plates on the wine-friendly menu, which leans farm-to-table bistro with Mediterranean flair. Silky chicken liver mousse ($12) arrives in a glass jar beneath its hermetic fat cap. It gets smeared across warm, cheesy gougeres. Juicy, zesty merguez sausage is grilled, sliced and served atop a glossy pool of white bean hummus and showered with microgreens. A pair of cheese-topped baguette slices cap a bowl of French onion soup ($8).
Our server neglected to convey the specials, so we nearly missed out on one of the best fish fries in town, but after seeing it land on a nearby table we inquired. Two flanks of plump, firm and mild walleye ($18) are encased in honey-colored beer-batter shells. The mound of crisp frites had no chance of a lengthy existence.
When a single menu features lamb sausage, fried fish, mushroom pappardelle ($20) and a savory lamb burger ($19), wines (or tastes) by the glass from the temperature controlled Cruvinet likely make the most sense. But diners are encouraged to browse the market shelves as well, where a staffer is on hand with assistance or a recommendation. That guidance is welcome given that the bulk of those bottles tend to be less familiar natural wines from small producers. Bottles are sold at retail plus a $20 corkage fee.
In the dessert category, Small’s delicately sweet olive oil cake ($9) makes an encore appearance, here capped with ricotta, candied orange peel and a dusting of confectioner’s sugar.
Like the Fig before it, Pearl’s menu will appeal equally to snackers, prudent vegetarians and ravenous omnivores. Each plate is composed with the chef’s trademark effortless, unaffected approach to food. And because her menus are never stagnant documents, it will be a treat to return seasonally to taste what Small comes up with next.
The restaurant’s new flexible layout opens it up to more events like casual wine tastings, themed wine dinners, wine club meet-ups and “ham bar happy hours.” That last one might be the best of the bunch given that glasses of wine are just $2 with a charcuterie purchase. Given the view through the glass from Market Avenue, whatever the team is doing appears to be working.
Pearl Street Wine Market & Café
2523 Market Ave., Cleveland
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