Saturday, December 27, 2008

Dish on Dining: Miss Pearl’s Jam House

Jam House or Cruise Ship?
One Broadway, Oakland
Jack London Square
PH: 510.444.7171
Weekday breakfast and lunch, weekend brunch and dinner nightly
Reservations, major credit cards accepted

In the Bay Area, it seems like a lot of people go out for Christmas dinner because when I tried to get reservations for me and my friend Sue at some of my favorite places, they were nearly booked. So we decided to have a Christmas eve dinner instead, and staying close to home we ended up at Miss Pearl’s Jam House in Oakland’s Jack London Square.

Miss Pearl’s Jam House is the once popular San Francisco restaurant at the Phoenix Hotel. And rising like a phoenix, albeit a couple of decades later, Miss Pearl’s is now an elegant restaurant with waterfront view. Opened a few months ago as part of the rejuvenation of Jack London Square, the restaurant is hoping to draw people to the neighborhood with its mix of old world and Caribbean cuisine.

While I’ve never been to the original Miss Pearl’s, I’m assuming it does have some resemblance to its old days because its former chef, Joey Altman, was hired as the consulting opening chef for the new Miss Pearl’s. Chef Altman, known mostly for his hosting of “Bay Area Café” on KRON-TV4, has created an eclectic menu of mostly Jamaican-inspired dishes with a few out-of-place choices like Ginger-Hoisin Glazed Salmon. These days, however, I imagine much of the food is influenced by Executive Chef Robert Barker, and Altman returns to Miss Pearl’s on weekends to perform with his band, the Backburner’s Blues Band.

When Sue and I arrived at the restaurant, the décor looked more like the Titanic than something called a jam house. The handsome room with a large bar area and open view of the kitchen seemed to emphasize more the sea than the Caribbean. There were sea shell motifs and pastel colors from the coral family. Even the menus are backed by mosaics made of fragments that looked like Mother of Pearl or oyster shells.

The only hint of the Caribbean is the attempts to look like an old plantation home with the wooden floors and ceiling. And the food, of course.

We started our evening with a special holiday drink called the Winter Solstice made of vodka and a whole lot of holiday spices like cinnamon and nutmeg. It had a citrus-color to it and definitely tasted festive, but I felt it lacked any punch and Sue didn’t like it at all. She swapped her Winter Solstice for a glass of wine instead.

When I said the menu is eclectic, I also meant it’s a bit segmented. It can seem overwhelming. It’s broken into small plates, soups and salads, which are all self-explanatory. Then you have the “Seafood Raw & Not So Raw Bar,” which is the seafood selection focused on shellfish. “From the Stove Oven” is a handful of dishes baked in, um, a stove oven. And “From the Jerk Pit” is the Caribbean-marinated meat section that you order ala carte and then add on a choice like Caribbean rice or fried plantains from the sides section.

Sue and I started by splitting the Mixed Greens with Roasted Spice Pears Salad ($9). Our waiter kindly served the salad in separate plates (so the serving size in the photo is half the normal size) and it was a pleasant California-style salad with the classic combination of blue cheese and pears all held together with a sherry vinaigrette. It looked more festive with the sprinkling of pomegranate seeds.

For her dinner, Sue got a couple of small dishes. The first was from the stove oven, the Cheesy Dungeness Crab Flatbread ($11), which looks a lot like a thin crust pizza. Sue says she liked the crab flatbread. The fresh crab meat was spread thinly over the flatbread, mixed with a few bits of spicy peppers. I thought the topping itself was average in flavor and the flatbread a bit chewy.

Sue also got the special soup, a Butternut Squash Bisque ($8) that was actually a big bowl for the money. It was spiced with a chestnut-apple-tamarind salsa that had settled to the bottom of the soup, so Sue learned that it’s important to always stir your soup before jumping in and eating.

I also ordered something from the stone oven, getting the Oysters with Tasso & Spinach ($13). This was basically like baked oysters in a sauce topped with cheese. I didn’t know if it was the tasso or the spinach, but the oyster was swimming in a thick green sauce that was almost like pea soup. But for some reason the green color looked really fake. It tasted bland and the oysters didn’t seem very plump.

For my entrée, I ordered half a Petaluma Chicken ($13) from the Jerk pit with a side of the market vegetables, which that night was roasted baby carrots. The chicken looked like a nice size serving and the meat was incredibly tender. It was fork tender pulling easily away from the bone. The jerk spices associated with Jamaica were very good, but stuck primarily on the skin. And since I don’t usually eat the skin, I don’t feel like I got the true jerk flavoring, despite the fact that the waiter says the chicken is marinated in the jerk spices for 10 hours. Still, I felt the jerk chicken was my favorite dish of the night because it really was so tender.

While dinner was a mix bag of pleasant-to-good dishes, I felt dessert, surprisingly, really picked up the evening. I ordered the Tres Leche Cake with passion fruit and strawberry sauce ($8). I don’t think I’ve ever had a tres leche cake, although I’ve always liked the name. But this particular cake was like a vanilla-coconut cake that was quite enjoyable and really enjoyable when you dredged it through the generous passion fruit sauce.

I have to say, though, that I really wanted to steal Sue’s dessert, which was the Key Lime “Bi” pie and sorbet ($8). I looooved the strong lime flavor of the tiny key lime pie (it was more like a piece of cake), a real balance of tart and sweet. The sorbet was served on top of a meringue cookie.

Side note: While the reception staff seemed a bit disoriented on this holiday evening, our waiter was extremely professional and engaging. He was very thorough in his description of the food, making them all sound really good to eat.

Miss Pearl’s Jam House seems like the perfect place for weekend brunch when the sun is out and you can enjoy the beautiful view of the bay. But the food isn’t distinctive enough, I feel, to maintain a steady night-time crowd who has to travel all the way down Broadway to Jack London Square. If Chef Barker focuses more on the Jerk pit offerings, becoming more a pit house than a jam house, then I think this new restaurant might be a winner. The seafood and other offerings just make it seem more like a cruise ship, when really I think Jamaican BBQ is more suited for a place called Miss Pearl’s Jam House.

Single guy rating: 3 stars (Stick with the jerk pit)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Miss Pearl's Jam House on Urbanspoon


Nate-n-Annie said...

That food doesn't look to appetizing to me.

Why do they call it Miss Pearl's Jam house? I don't really see a hint of jam in the dishes. Is it a play off of Pearl Jam the band? Or does it mean that this house has musicians "jamming" live all the time?

Chef Ben said...

I'm not really sure, but I think the old restaurant was much smaller, and probably had a more blues club vibe. I think they're trying to bring the jammin' to this Oakland version.

Mrs. L said...

I've been curious about the place since I read that Altman still had a hand in it. Thanks for the review.

David K. and Ann C. said...

That crab flatbread looks deee-licious! I wonder if it's as good as the truffled mushroom flatbread at Coco500 in SF? -- David

foodhoe said...

I love that location, especially if they kept the outdoor seating area for nice weather. The desserts sounded the most interesting to me.