(Elk Rapids, MI) — For some time now, friends have been telling us about Pearl’s New Orleans Kitchen up in Elk Rapids. It’s received rave reviews from acquaintances and food bloggers, so when we booked a weekend trip to attend the Traverse City Film Festival, it only seemed natural to include a quick jaunt further north for some down south spicy cooking...
Thanks to a solo adventure at Blue Tractor in downtown Traverse City earlier in the day, I’m not terribly hungry when we head to Pearl’s New Orleans Kitchen for an early dinner, with good friends John and Di. Still, I know my duty and try to muster an appetite as we pull into the dirt parking lot. I’m a little worried to see some people standing outside in the oppressive heat. Does Pearl’s get this busy, this early?
As it happens, the answer is yes...but we manage to snag the last four-top booth all the way in the back. It’s not much cooler in here, however. The unseasonably hot and humid temps are taxing most air-conditioners this weekend, it seems. We order ice water to start, and I like the sound of the cocktail du jour. It is lemongrass-infused True North vodka with sweet-n-sour and a touch of grapefruit juice, I believe. Very refreshing and not too sweet. The cool drink and the scent of cajun food helps prod my stomach into action.
There are a lot of fun appetizers on the menu—including alligator, oysters, and fried green tomatoes—but I’m just not feeling up to the task. Juliet orders some cheddar grits for the table to share. From the one spoonful I tried, they were quiet delicious: cheesy, creamy, and studded with chunks of andouille sausage.
Seafood seems to be the dominant choice, but I’m just not feeling it tonight. Thankfully, there are five different combinations for Étouffée and the andouille is calling my name. The overlarge bowl platter brims with sausage in a thick roux of rice, tomatoes, onions, red peppers, and okra. It is pitch-perfect cajun food, piping hot and delicious. There is a gumminess to the mixture that is not altogether unpleasant. I struggle to finish the meal, picking out chunks of sausage even though I’m full.
Dessert is, of course, out of the question (even though we’d been told the bread pudding is phenomenal). I do try a slice of John’s blackened tuna, very rare in the center, and I immediately regret steering clear of the seafood. It is amazingly fresh and succulent, with a nice kick. Di’s blackened marlin is also tasty, exhibiting texture like a thick piece of pork.
We pay the bill and head back out into the heat, promising ourselves that we must—no, need—to get back to Pearl’s in the near future for more of the authentic gulf coast cuisine. Next time, I’ll probably go with the tuna.
We arrive early, just in time to beat the Saturday dinner rush as the hostess tells us we got the last free table in the place. We are shown to a booth in a far corner tucked away from the noise and chaos and left to peruse dinner and drink menus.
Pearl's infuses their vodkas, gins, and bourbons in-house, which bodes well. I figure if they pay that much attention to the hootch, then the food must be darn good. Our server relates the night's specials, including blackened marlin over penne in an artichoke cream sauce; a Cajun strip steak with blue cheese crumbles; and two seasonal cocktails, one of which features vodka infused with lemongrass and fresh ginger. I'm a sucker for ginger with lemongrass and order one to cool down from the day's heat. It's refreshing and while it's lemony, there's no trace of herbacious lemongrass or heat from fresh ginger. Don't get me wrong, the drink is tasty and I end up ordering a second. I'm just not tasting the vodka infusion at all.
Literally everything on the menu sounds good and it's hard to choose. I settle on the fried chicken with mashed potatoes and collard greens. I also order a side of cheddar grits for the table to share.
I go with the all-white option on the chicken which might be a mistake. Instead of a leg, thigh and breast, I get two breasts which are a bit tough and dry on the outside. The breading is spicy while slightly sweet and the chicken meat near the bone is juicy and flavorful, but the outermost layer of meat is overcooked and dry. The mashed potatoes have a generous dollop of andouille cream gravy which takes them over the top from classic comfort food to downright divine. The real surprise however is the collards. I've never taken to long-simmered greens, finding them slimy and gross. Not these! Pearl's collards have a bit of bite to them and are tangy, sweet and spicy all at once. They remind me of Wickle's pickles. Another food myth busted and I vow to attempt to cook collards at home this summer.
We all try a bite of each other's food. Jeremy's etouffee is rich and delicious. Di's marlin filet is a bit dry, but the penne very good. John's pistachio-crusted tuna is declared tonight's winning dish and we all enjoy the grits. A final note: Pearl's bread basket features a jalapeno spiked cornbread which is out of this world and worth the visit alone.