Winter has begun to show its stormy face, with the Fleurieu coastline putting on a spectacular spectacle of windswept beaches, crashing waves and that salty sting of sideways rain. Today our refuge is a modern cabin-style structure leaning against the rugged sand dunes of Aldinga Beach. We’re at the Pearl, which at first glance may seem like a typical South African beachside kiosk cafe, but its menu focused on seafood and fresh produce puts this restaurant squarely in restaurant territory. .
Inside, the layout is fresh, clean and unpretentious, with views from the internal dining area straight into a large, pumping galley. Only the enclosed section of the outdoor terrace can be used today, but there is a two-sided wrap for days when the weather is nicer. The furniture inside is basic and we quickly find that the tables are far too small to cope with multiple diners or plates as they begin to arrive. The decors look a bit picnic-like – slatted table tops and all – and that’s a bit of a shame because we’re about to find out that the food is anything but.
A concoction of diced red beets gets us started quite nicely. Much like a dip that has been prepared with good knife skills to create even chunks, it has been accented with scattered pomegranates, chopped walnuts and sprigs of fresh dill, all made to lay on warm slices Turkish pide bread. The main component has a nice hint of acid and an earthy flavor expected from beets and nuts; the plating is fine, but it’s a bit messy to eat.
It’s the next dish that amps things up, displaying finer knife skills, in this case used to fillet sardines caught in Port Lincoln into even fillets, flared in a circular shape on a plate. These local imports are spectacular in texture and taste, thanks in large part to agrodolce – a sticky sweet and sour sauce made with honey and vinegar. It’s a surprising hit of delicious flavor, first assumed to be plain olive oil pooled under lightly cooked tenderloins. A central blend of almonds and currants and generously applied herbs provide added texture and flavor to the dish which has an underlying citrus note, singing a song of distant seas and a thoughtful preparation of a fish that deserves more attention than it often receives.
Next is the broccolini, and it’s the scent of smoke that hits before the flavor follows. An earthy, slightly spicy condiment with a crème fraîche base melts through charred stems that retain their crunch. Good olive oil, scattered almonds and a squeeze of lemon are the only other things added to this side that have real potential as a main course. It’s about here that we also start to feel the pressure at the table, with lunch becoming a jigsaw puzzle of dishes and side dishes landing while others wait to be cleared, then a bucket for wine tipped the scales to the point that we’re re – stackable glasses to save space. This is not a service or staff issue (the staff are an absolute delight and the service has been consistent and timely) but a basic issue regarding the selection of cutlery versus table surface.
Grilling is used again, this time on a segmented cos head with blackened edges generously coated with a creamy white miso sauce that seeps between the leaves. The lettuce holds its shape and the center retains its freshness while the miso adds a hint of salty flavor. The roasted seeds on top add texture and earthy notes, while the ginger imparts its fragrant scent and slight bitter taste. This is another simply prepared dish that proves that less is always more when it comes to making vegetables (or a salad) this fresh and flavorful. Pearl’s product-driven philosophy goes beyond lip service.
It’s time to move on to more robust main courses, thanks to a sturdy clay bowl containing half a kilo of meaty mussels still simmering in a tomato, fennel and garlic sauce. You can rarely go wrong with this simple style of preparation and Pearl’s is a hearty take on a classic. The vegetables are well cooked to the point of falling apart while the mussels remain tender and just cooked. Say yes to extra bread – you’ll need it to mop up the sauce when only empty shells remain.
And now (quite stuffed) we come to the dish of the day. Silver trevally fillet caught on Kangaroo Island is cooked with its skin perfectly crispy and lightly charred maintaining a firm but silky flesh that comes off easily. This is again served family style on a platter (too big for the table) stacked with sides of roasted Jerusalem artichokes, some more of those greasy and juicy grilled mussels and a generous scoop of romesco sauce. There’s a mash under the fish which adds a little creamy texture and a few crunchy vegetable crisps strewn across the dish, as well as a pile of lightly salted and crispy fried cabbage. Again, nothing too fussy, but thought has gone into the preparation of each ingredient, and into the composition of this pleasant dish.
It’s been a meal of plenty, with harvests fresh from the sea and surrounding farms, and despite its humble first impressions, it’s clear that Pearl isn’t your average cafe or kiosk. It’s the kind of place that could give destination spots like the nearby Star of Greece a hard time, if only there were better tables.
Boat ramp, Aldinga beach (just off the lower esplanade)
Open: Wed-Sun 9am-4pm; Fri-Sat 6pm-9pm
(08) 7477 7177
When you pledge to make a regular weekly, bi-weekly or monthly tax-deductible donation to InReview, each scheduled donation will be matched by Creative Partnerships Australia. That means you’re supporting twice as many InReview stories to order, edit, and publish.
This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.