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Restaurants: Pearl on the Rock

Mia Stainsby
Vancouver Sun

July 21, 2005

I finally made the pilgrimage to Pearl on the Rock. On the first visit, the roads were slick, the rain, pelting, the traffic, awful, and parking, of course, a pain. I'm happy to say, the trip was well worth converting my little Italian sandals into sludge.

This sophisticated little restaurant has been flying under the radar for about a year now. The owner is just old enough to avoid being called a wunderkind. He's 25-year-old Nicholas Popoff, a testament to youthful gutsiness and the thoroughbred training at Earl's restaurant chain, where he started as an 18-year-old dishwasher and moved up to night coach within a year. Pearl is a smooth-running machine that's packed even on a monsoony Tuesday evening. There's lots of staff (including a wine director and two wine stewards), they're welcoming and even the busser seemed interested enough in food to know what the "wild ivory salmon" on the menu was. "I think it feeds on herring," she ventured. And she was right.

"I owe almost everything to that company," Popoff says, of Earl's. But before opening Pearl, he was dining room manager at the casual Washington Avenue Grill in White Rock.

Pearl's chef Connor Butler is holding up his end, too, turning out lovely food, and being choosy about ingredients. And it's no wonder. He's worked as chef de partie (head of a station) at C and Bacchus restaurants.

The food is described as contemporary Pacific cuisine (the emphasis is on seafood) and they are open for lunch, brunch and dinner, every day. There's a seven-course tasting menu ($65 or $105 with wine), a raw bar and a regular a la carte menu.

I like the attention to detail. When bread is served, it comes with a scrumptious truffle and Meyer lemon oil and gorgeous balsamic vinegar. Certainly not ho-hum.

The restaurant's wine list has been recognized by Wine Spectator, and was bestowed an Award of Merit this year; it also received the Best First-time Entry award at the Vancouver International Wine Festival.

Butler smoothly incorporates surprises into his dishes. A Sun Valley trout (farmed in an environmentally friendly operation near Chilliwack) was one such dish. The skin was removed and deep-fried into a wavy edible with a Nalley's potato chip-like crunch. I didn't think I'd like it but it was delicious, as was the trout. I loved the gnocchi it came with.

Queen Charlotte scallops were lovely and was one of several dishes displaying chef's affinity to surf'n'turf. Beside the scallops was a small offering of Oyama chorizo "meatloaf" -- I'm not partial to surf'n'turf so I wouldn't have missed it. But I changed my mind with the squid and boar with greens and sprouts and a melding Korean barbecue sauce (ouch, it was hot). It had me shovelling for more. Another, sablefish with pulled pork (served like a croquette) and braised pork shoulder was united with a thick and creamy choucroute puree.

Butler acquired a candy floss machine on eBay for 50 bucks and well, I'm not so sure it was the best use of cotton candy but he wrapped it around thyme as a garnish. I'm thinking it belongs with dessert, maybe a nest for chocolate truffles or ice cream.

A starter called "chowder clam" was lovely and the emphasis was indeed more on clam than chowder; "Rock" salad was a composition of wild ivory salmon, scallops, prawns, grapefruit and greens with a champagne vinaigrette. Lovely.

Butler has been in the industry since he was 12, washing dishes, then moving onto the line when he was 14 (in the U.S.). The menu shows his ease in creating (rosewater wild ivory salmon, candied saddle of rabbit, back bacon pineapple tatin with organic chicken) but more importantly, from what I've tasted, he can orchestrate the flavours.

For dessert, a Valrhona chocolate coulant was delicious. Bananas Foster wasn't as tasty (tasteless bananas, not enough rum) as it's dramatic with the table-side flambe.

And I learned something new. There is public parking UNDERGROUND, across from The Boathouse, says Popoff. And the parking meters (which run to 2 a.m. in the summer) are new ones. If the time runs out, you punch in your stall number and add more time (money) after you return.

Expect more from Popoff. He says this is the first of five "Pearls" in the next seven years. He's looking at False Creek, Yaletown, Dundarave, Langley, Port Moody -- a challenging plan, even with Earl's training!

Restaurant visits are conducted anonymously and interviews are done by phone. Restaurants are rated out of five stars. (mstainsby@png.canwest.com)

14955 Marine Dr.,
White Rock.
Open 7 days a week for dinner. Brunch on Sunday.

Overall Rating 4
Food Rating 4
Ambience Rating 4
Service Rating 4
Price $$$