Sunday, May 01, 2005

Pearl of a bar - The Bar at Pearl, Richmond

A lot of the time we try to avoid nice restaurants because they just seem too expensive, but with the bar option at restaurants like Pearl on Church Street, you can have a Glam Night Out without getting a Big Cash Out.

From its inception, Pearl has always been on the top of many foodies' lists. Chef Geoff Lindsay is known for his adventurous Asian-inspired food that has led Pearl to win numerous awards. However, the familiar fine-dining price range at the restaurant probably means that visits there should be left for special occasions. The bar, on the other hand, is much more budget-friendly, and gives a sneak peek of the restaurant offerings as well as serving some more classic dishes. The bar is no longer just for drinks. What about those soggy chips and overdue nuts? No can do!

We visited at lunchtime, initially hoping to catch some of their much-raved-about weekend brunch, but having been spoilt by the all-day breakfast cafes around town, we forgot that at 12.30, people should really be having lunch. The friendly waiters smiled forgivingly at our ignorance and handed us lunch menus and the wine list. Wines by the glass are listed on the first page, followed by many pages of wines by the bottle categorized by type and style. I decide it's too early for alcohol and my companion was really my chauffeur so we give the wines a miss.

The lunch menu is a much briefer document, with "little", "bigger" and "sweet" dishes on the one page. "little" dishes such as prosciutto with grissini and olives, lamb and fennel seed sausages, and lettuce cups with rare beef salad are perfect as nibbles to share. We choose the flat chips with dips and the fried eggplant with ponzu sauce. The "flat chips" turn out to be impossibly thin homemade potato chips served with a flavour-packed tomato relish and a creamy, mayonnaise-like sauce.

Scooping up the chunky relish with a chip is as close to impossible as for me to stop eating chocolate, due to their airy thinness, so restrict all dipping action to the other sauce or you抣l find yourself with unsightly chip crumbs planted between tomato segments. Pretend to be posh and use your knife (hint: you can load more onto each chip that way too). The fried eggplant is stuffed with finely diced Chinese cabbage (wombok) and shitake mushrooms and enveloped in a golden caramel tinted, crisp, wispy, voluminous batter, much like the type used for fried taro dumplings at yum cha. Definitely a very welcome departure from over-interpreted tempura batter. The filling is moist but not too wet, with clean, fresh flavours. The vinegar and soy based ponzu sauce was well-balanced and made a good partner for the dish. A solid combination.

The fried egg with cucumber salad from the "bigger" section was another Asian-inspired dish bursting with freshness. The nut relish in the cucumber salad is reminiscent of nuoc cham with a sprinkling of peanuts in Vietnamese cuisine. The egg is fried to a dramatic shape such that it stands atypically tall on the plate, and is loaded with parsley and threads of chilli and finished off with a sort of soy vinaigrette. We guessed that this was done in the deep-fryer, allowing the white to become browned whilst keeping the yolk addictively runny. Again, an interesting blend of flavours. If only there was some carb to mop all the liquids up!

Desserts in the bar menu consist of small items such as lamingtons, Persian fairy floss and Turkish delights, but diners are also welcome to order more elaborate creations from the restaurant's dessert menu.

Asian diners may find that Pearl's menu shows creative use of seemingly everyday ingredients and techniques, therefore probably only the more adventurous amongst us would be inspired to visit the restaurant. Nonetheless, the bar would be a good place to get a feel for the food, or just for grabbing a good-value meal in a casual and groovy designer setting.

Pearl Restaurant & Bar
631-633 Church Street
Richmond 3121
Tel: 9421 4599 (Bookings not required at the bar)
Open: (bar) 11am-late, 7 days

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