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Published Friday, December 11, 2015

CK Pearl: Food as Good as the Views

By Todd Feinburg

Our poached eggs sat happily atop their lobster foundation, tastefully coated with hollandaise sauce.

Restaurant sensibilities are in constant flux, but CK Pearl in Essex is running in sync with current expectations. It is comfortable, hip and delicious, taking a creative and eclectic approach to New England Seafood – just the sort of upscale restaurant you need when looking for someplace new to go on the North Shore.

Consider their clam chowder. It is thick and creamy, the way most people like it, but the fried clam garnish is accompanied by a couple of strips of pork belly – perhaps the most popular of old fangled ingredients that are becoming the new big thing. If you aren’t following Jewish dietary laws, the smoky surprise of the pork belly pumps new life into a traditional dish.

These fine chowder enhancements are an early sign that there’s a chef in the kitchen at CK Pearl, a hunch that is confirmed by our next dish. The sweet beet salad pops with crisp, cool flavor, the most impressive of the fine food my wife and I enjoyed at brunch on Sunday. The goat cheese yogurt, spiced peanuts and balsamic vinegar merge delightfully while still providing different flavor surprises with each bite, and the crunch of the (not-orange) carrots contrasts nicely with the beets.

The North Shore restaurants we are most apt to enjoy and recommend, such as Short & Main in Gloucester, Nine Elm in Danvers or Five Corners Kitchen in Marblehead, are chef-owned and relatively small in size. This formula seems best for diners who have high expectations, as the owner can directly monitor nearly every dish that leaves the kitchen.

While CK Pearl isn’t small – it has 90 plus seats in the winter, then nearly doubles in size in the summer – chef/owner Patrick Shea has the passion and energy to deliver the same sort of consistency as the others. But the restaurant is new to us – we’ll see how CK delivers over time.

Shea seems to have just one emotional state, smiling so consistently that one might mistake him for a member of the dolphin family. Maybe he’s happy because we’re so complimentary as we sample his food and he showers us with stories at Sunday brunch, or maybe it’s because opening CK Pearl in June of 2014 represented a coming home for him.

If you haven’t noticed yet, Shea shares the last name of the restaurant next door which,until a few years ago, was owned by his father, Tom Shea. And Patrick grew up just a few feet further down the road, as his family also owned the Essex River Motel and the home next door where they lived. So Main Street, and the wonderful views of the Essex River that CK Pearl’s and Shea’s Riverside Restaurant share, are home to Patrick.

At age 31, Shea is old enough to have collected some diverse experience – as a chef at establishments like Eastern Standard in Boston and with the Lyons Group, which owns popular spots like Sonsie, Kings bowling alleys, and the sports bar Game On outside Fenway Park – but still young enough to work like an animal – especially during tourist season – while mostly seeing his wife and three young daughters when they come in to the restaurant to eat. Which they did on Sunday.

Brie fondue was the next dish that Shea selected for us. My wife took a taste and said, “Hmmm, I wish we’d had just this.” Not a slight to the dishes that came before, but a desire to have the freedom to dip every piece of bread into this pot of creamy lusciousness. But, alas, we were there to work rather than indulge, dutifully having just a couple of bites of each item before pushing it away in practiced imitation of people gifted with discipline.

We wrapped up by splitting a Lobster Benedict, with lobster meat taking the place of the slice of ham that defines a traditional benedict. The eggs were perfectly poached, and the rest of the dish was just as good. On the side, we enjoyed Shea’s Smoked Corn Beef Hash, which has nothing to do with what you get at most restaurants, but everything to do with how you expect a chef to approach hash. Large, not tiny, chunks of actual beef, beautifully seasoned, completely prepared to be an entrée unto itself.

I have a rule of thumb – don’t expect good food at a restaurant with great views. The cost of the real estate, combined with its power to draw crowds, generally results in a busy establishment, no matter how ordinary the fare. But the food we sampled on our first visit to CK Pearl reveals a chef who knows his stuff – there is no way to fake these culinary outcomes. Whether Shea has the operational skill to deliver that level of quality over the long haul remains to be seen. But we look forward to putting him to the test. And we expect he’ll be smiling every time.

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