A delightful string of dishes

Seafood and desserts are among the jewels at Canton's Pearls

Sunday Gourmet

December 12, 2004|By Elizabeth Large | By Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

What's in a name? Well, it can lead to certain expectations, as the name Canton's Pearls does. And it can raise as many questions as it answers. Canton's Pearls does that too. For instance, if you wanted the name to say this is the best restaurant in the neighborhood, you would call it Canton's Pearl. If the owner were named Pearl, it would have an apostrophe. (One of the owners, as it happens, is named Earl, not Pearl -- Earl Hamilton. His partners include a friend, Bob Warr, and son Eric. )

The name should bring to mind strings of pearls, the ones you wear to a fine-dining restaurant, not oysters, as you might expect from the location near the water.

Because "Canton" is part of the name, you may think that Pearls is -- like so many other Canton restaurants -- a bar. Not so. And you expect it to be located in some renovated and historic building, like most other Canton restaurants. Not so again. It's in what I can only think of as the Canton 'burbs, a featureless new complex (the bad news) with as many parking spaces as a mini-mall (the good).

Inside is a large contemporary space with a bar along one wall and an open kitchen along another. The night we were there, a combo played soft jazz. The colors are predominantly blue and a soft salmon, with hanging globe lights picking up the pearl theme, comfortable banquettes, white tablecloths and handsome glassware, suggesting that wine is a priority here. Of course, misspelling viognier on the wine list counteracts that to some degree, but still...

We were interested in having wine, but the waiter launched into descriptions and suggestions at such a rapid-fire pace -- without asking what we wanted to drink -- I was tempted to order a beer. In general, if he had just ratcheted it down a bit I would have no complaints about the service. I lean to the seen-but-not-heard if I have to choose one extreme or the other. (He was a nice guy otherwise.)

The kitchen, under the direction of chef Michael Broglio, turns out a nicely balanced selection of New American dishes weighted to the Southwest, a bit pricey for the area if you want a standard dinner, but with less expensive small plates that are more substantial than first courses usually are.

By no stretch of the imagination, for instance, could braised short ribs be considered an appetizer. But when the fall-off-the-bone meat, enlivened with a fiery poblano salsa, is this good, it leaves you eager for what will follow. Or take the polenta fries with vegetables. Four sticks of cornmeal mush, crisply fried with soft insides, form the border for the gently charred grilled vegetables. The result should be ordinary; instead, it's as enticing as anything on the menu.

Broglio likes to stack some of his appetizers in martini glasses, a presentation that can end up being somewhat ungainly.

Oysters pan-fried with a semolina crust invite a comparison to oysters Rockefeller because of the addition of spinach, pancetta and Pernod. While the oysters are freshly flavorful, they are also a bit mushy and pale, not golden brown. They aren't particularly appetizing wedged together in the glass. The format works better with scallops, juxtaposed with fresh orange segments in vodka and drizzled with beurre blanc. They don't need to be spread out to look appealing.

Broglio's strength is seafood, whether he's forming lump crabmeat into nearly perfect crab cakes or bathing a fresh, beautifully cooked grouper fillet in a silky beurre blanc, raised to another level with the addition of mango. The crab cakes are deeply satisfying on their own, but corn pudding adds imaginative flair to the plate.

There is a fat hunk of beef tenderloin on the menu, a tender piece of meat but somewhat overshadowed by the fine cheese-laden polenta and poblano salsa that come with it. Corn and cornmeal are used to good effect throughout, from the smoked oyster and corn pancake with the grouper to the miniature corn muffins and cornbread in the breadbasket.

For those in vegetarian mode, a phyllo pastry shell keeps a curried vegetable spring roll with tofu and basmati rice from seeming too healthy for its own good. The bed of wilted arugula adds a pleasantly bitter note.

Are we surprised that the dessert menu sports a flourless death-by-chocolate cake and a creme brulee? Not exactly. But we are more interested in a sophisticated little black bottom bread pudding with a killer chocolate sauce, a passion-fruit sorbet that nicely balances the fire of much of our dinner, and a phyllo-wrapped apple "spring roll" with a rich caramel sauce.

For some reason, Canton hasn't embraced Pearls yet. Too bad; it deserves better. Our waiter was surprised and pleased that the restaurant was half full on a Thursday night. Maybe diners come expecting something else, or maybe Pearls' first few weeks of existence were rocky. In either case, I hope people give this very pleasant restaurant a second chance.

Canton's Pearls

Food: ***

Service: ** 1/2

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 3301 Boston St., Canton

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $6-$10; Entrees: $18-$29

Call: 410-276-8900

Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

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