Bold New Fantasy Island
The Return of Miss Pearl's Jam House
Nearly 75 years ago, Oakland became the fountainhead of faux-Polynesian dining when Victor Jules Bergeron Jr. parlayed his first Trader Vic’s restaurant into an international chain. Tiki kitsch peaked in the 1950s and ’60s, faded and then blossomed again recently with the resurgence of fancy cocktails. Miss Pearl’s Jam House is not a direct descendent of Trader Vic’s, but a parallel Fantasy Island aesthetic thoroughly informs the new Oakland hot spot’s beach-holiday décor, flashy rum-based drinks and exotica island-fusion cuisine and adds a much-needed jolt of whimsy to Jack London Square.
Restaurateurs Julie Ring and Jeff Gradinger and chef Joey Altman dreamed up Miss Pearl’s in 1989, turning a funky restaurant bar at the Phoenix Hotel in San Francisco into a late-’80s and early ’90s social vortex of Jell-O shots, splashy drinks and small plates of Altman’s then-innovative postmodern California take on of Afro-Caribbean cuisine.
Nearly two decades later, hotel-restaurant specialists Joie de Vivre Hospitality capped the remodeling of Oakland’s Waterfront Plaza Hotel by reviving Miss Pearl’s Jam House in a more upscale guise. Now a TV celebrity chef and author, Altman signed on to consult, and Robert Barker, a veteran of Emeril’s in New Orleans and three Wolfgang Puck restaurants, took command of the kitchen.
Designer Michael Brennan took a relatively gentle tack on the island theme. He opted for muted sand and coral tones on the walls and the booth, banquette and chair upholstery, and he didn’t go overboard with the tropical tourist-trap gewgaws. By differently ornamenting each section of the sprawling layout with mosaics, recessed abalone shell grottos, ceiling fans and so on, he gave the bar, lounge, dining rooms and outdoor patios distinct ambiences that foster the illusion of relaxing in a Caribbean colonial mansion rather than ducking into in a low-ceilinged hotel restaurant.
Barker takes a more aggressive approach on the equally sprawling menu. Altman’s bold sensibilities are extrapolated into the piquant cinnamon tomato sauce for Miss Pearl’s Jamaican meat patties ($8); grilled pineapple salsa for the ginger-hoisin-glazed salmon ($24); Creole rémoulade on the crispy catfish po’ boy ($12); roasted garlic tomato chutney with the grilled eggplant steak ($17); spicy mango mustard for the littleneck clam and sweet corn fritters ($9); horseradish-garlic mojo for the grilled skirt steak ($23); and chipotle-lime butter with the blackened rib-eye ($34). Miss Pearl’s offers few safe harbors for timid palates.
On our dinner visit, we were knocked out by the way the roasted red pepper–garlic sauce added zip and moisture to the crunchy black-eye pea fritters ($7) and how the chile-mint dipping sauce made other flavors shimmy in the “Thai sticks” ($11)—pork, rock shrimp and shiitake spring rolls with Thai herb–peanut vegetable slaw. The sugar cane barbecue prawns ($24)—giant, succulent shrimp stacked in a tower on a big white plate accompanied by tasty shrimp and andouille sausage corn cakes, avocado-corn salsa and swooshes of red chile sauce—boded well for the freshness of the seafood that shows up in almost every subdivision of the Jam House menu, from the oysters, clams and shrimp from “raw and not so raw bar” and stone oven to the boned whole fish from the jerk pit (market price).
Less impressive that night were the cubes of Niman Ranch pork shoulder from the jerk pit ($13 for an ample “small” portion, $18 for large), some of which were dried out and tough while others were fatty and chewy, and not enough were tender and juicy: Dipping bites into the ramekin of super fiery sauce helped.
Ordering red wine was probably not the wisest choice. Our stylish but bemused server demonstrated no knowledge of the extensive list; at $8 and $10 our individual glasses were priced at about half of the bottle’s retail cost; and neither wine stood up to the spices in the food. Moreover, with more than two-dozen rums available—for sipping and in cocktails—a cold daiquiri, Old Cuban, Caribbean Mule, spiced pear Caipirini or Dark-n-Stormy ($8.50–$9) would have been a better way to go.
Minor quibbles aside, our dinner was delightful, indeed almost romantic (although the background of Caribbean and Latin music promotes partying more than spooning). A subsequent Sunday brunch was just as enjoyable in different ways: The outdoor patios were jammed, big picture windows provided a sunny view of sailboats in the inner Oakland harbor and a chatty server took care of us with the confident and efficient manner of a coffee shop veteran.
Some prices sting ($12 for two eggs with fruit, salad or potatoes and toast or green onion flatbread), but the range of offerings is more accommodating, from fresh fruit smoothies ($5), house-made tropical granola ($9), French toast ($12) and Belgian waffles ($12) to roasted salmon ($15) and the sandwiches that also appear on the lunch menu (grilled eggplant with heirloom tomato, roasted pepper, goat cheese and basil aioli, $10; pressed slow-roasted pork Cuban sandwich, $12). I’d go back for the well-executed chicken and andouille hash with poached eggs, red chile sauce and roasted green chile hollandaise ($14), and when Robin substituted sweet potato fries for home fries with her spinach, caramelized onion, mushroom and smoked gouda Jam House scramble ($13), we discovered a Miss Pearl’s specialty that eclipses even the luscious milk-soaked, fruit-sauce accented tres leches cake ($8 dinner, $7 brunch).
Like several facets of Miss Pearl’s, sweet potato fries ($6 for a side order) aren’t especially novel in 2008, but as seems to be the case more often than not in the Jam House, the execution—the ribbon-thin slices are flash-fried in very hot peanut oil to almost chip-like crispness and dusted with chile-lime spices—elevates the whole experience into a realm all its own. That’s the point, and it’s well taken at Miss Pearl’s.
MISSPearl's JAM HOUSE. Caribbean. 1 Broadway, (510) 444-7171, www.misspearlsjamhouse.com. Serves breakfast 7 a.m.–10:30 a.m. Mon.–Fri., lunch 11:30 a.m.–3 p.m. Mon.–Fri., brunch 9 a.m.–3 p.m. Sat.-Sun., dinner 5:30 p.m.–10 p.m. Mon.–Thu.,5:30 p.m.–11 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 5:30 p.m.–9 p.m. Sunday. Credit Cards, Full Bar, Reservations, Wheelchair Accessible, $$-$$$$.
—By Derk Richardson
—Photography by Lori Eanes