Here’s a fun way to liven up a dull party — ask the snooty guy critiquing the bacon-wrapped dates if he knows the three Grand Cuisines of the world. Chances are good he’ll come up short.
Though no one really knows who made the distinction between Grand and not-so-grand cuisines, it’s generally recognized in the food world that Chinese and French are two of the three. So what’s the third? Hint: It’s not Italian, Japanese or Indian either.
We’re not talking kabobs and doner, but the sultan-approved dishes of the Ottoman Empire, which spanned from Eastern Europe, through Syria, Persia and through North Africa. From rosewater and pomegranate syrup sorbets to hummus, pita, lamb tagine and rich fish stews, the thread that tied all the dishes together were the exotic spices from the Silk Road and herbs including cumin, saffron, turmeric, cinnamon, pepper, ginger, cloves, fenugreek and sumac.
It also happens to be what makes Petaluma’s new Pearl restaurant such an exciting find. Inspired by the flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa (with a little Southern French and Spanish thrown in for good measure), chef/owners Brian Leitner and Annette Yang have transformed the former Luma into a sunny breakfast and lunch spot featuring their own interpretations of shakshuka, fresh pita, fattoush salad and braised meats like rabbit, brisket and lamb.
Brian, a Chez Panisse alum who owned a popular seafood restaurant in San Francisco and most recently an eclectic southern European restaurant in Portland, Oregon, returned to the Bay Area, and specifically Petaluma to escape some of the hubbub of city life. But Annette says they weren’t specifically trying to fill a niche by serving up food inspired by Israel, Syria, Turkey and Morocco.
“This is what we eat at home,” said Yang, who manages the front of the house — from bartending to seating and serving. “We like big, distinct and clean flavors with a light touch. It’s food that isn’t weighed down by butter and fats,” she added, saying Pearl is both ancient and modern in its approach to eating.
They aren’t obsessed, however, with recreating exact recipes. Dishes like their Moroccan Hangtown ($17), a pan-fried oyster with Merguez sausage, scrambled eggs and roasted peppers are more about a sense of place rather than being perfectly authentic. But hearty bowls from chickpea, fava and tomato stew are transportive, with warm spices and deep flavors reminiscent of faraway places.
“We are rooted in inspiration from an Old World culture and inspired by local ingredients,” said Yang.
Best Bets at Pearl:
We noticed that dishes do change slightly from week to week, depending on what’s in season, though you should be able to find favorites like shakshuka pretty regularly. The menu is divided into “smaller” and “bigger” plates, so depending on your hunger level, order accordingly. There is a brief but fascinating by-the-glass wine list, along with beer, sangria and a handful of coffee and low-booze tipples along with non-alcoholic avocado date shakes, fresh lemonade, warm ginger cider and not-your-usual iced teas.
Pearl is open for breakfast and lunch, so expect lighter daytime dishes rather than excessively heavy dinners.
Buckwheat Polenta ($7): This is polenta’s heartier, chewier, more rib-sticking cousin. Earthy, nutty and chewy, this version doesn’t contain corn, making a little closer to oatmeal than grits. Topped with a bloomy, soft cow’s milk cheese, this dish is hard to put down.
Israeli Breakfast ($12): This dish of hummus, labneh (a sort of cream cheese), fresh pita and fruit is so ancient that King David would probably recognize it. There’s a reason its lasted millennia — its light and delish, and the green hummus — made with parsley — is a vibrant change.
Braised Rabbit ($14): This lean, sustainable meat isn’t on everyone’s approval list, but cooked with fresh spring vegetables (asparagus, fava) and topped with apple allioli (a sweet, eggless garlic mayo-like spread) it’s the essence of the season.
Smoked Trout and House Ricotta ($9): Don’t leave without this one. Served in a jar, the combo of smoky, rich McFarland Spring trout (which has a salmon color) and creamy ricotta scream for Brian’s fresh semolina flatbread.
Shakshuka ($18): Another can’t miss. Chickpeas and favas swim in a ruby stew of tart tomatoes, topped with grilled Halloumi cheese. Tiny eggs are cooked into the dish, cooked in a wood-fired oven. You will need fresh pita topped with za’atar (a blend of herbs like sumac, oregano, hyssop and sesame seeds) to mop up the delicious mess.
Persian Fish Stew ($20): I loved this a lot more than I thought I would, mainly because of the tamarind-fenugreek broth. Mussels, rockfish and shrimp are steamed in a brilliantly-flavored stock, muddling the briny seafood flavors and the aromatic broth. Served with a slab of Della Fattoria bread, it’s heavenly.
Moroccan Rice Pudding ($8): It’s almost too pretty to eat, though ours was a little soupier than the rice pudding we’re used to eating, the tart, spiced dish is worth trying.
Overall: Bright and exotic layers of flavor that pay homage to a world cuisine that’s often overlooked by Americans.
If you go: No tipping! All menu prices consider the cost of living wages for staff, along with the restaurant’s operating costs. There’s not even a line on the receipt to leave a tip! We love the idea of actually knowing what we’re paying for up front.
500 First St., Petaluma, 707-559-5187, pearlpetaluma.com. Open 9 a.m. to 3p.m. Wednesday through Monday. Closed Tuesday.