Toons Bar & Grill owner Danny Beck has always been a huge fan of New Orleans. He launched his cooking career at the New Orleans’ House of Blues location as training for joining the opening crew for the Chicago locationâ€™s restaurant. Heâ€™s made many subsequent pilgrimages to New Orleans over the years and regularly transformed Toons into a raginâ€™ Cajun fest for the barâ€™s semi-annual crawfish boils. Beck wanted to celebrate his love for New Orleans, as well as the southern cooking inspiration of his grandmother, Pearl, so he partnered with one of his Toons managers, Rich Hagerty, to open Pearlâ€™s Southern Comfort in Edgewater. I stopped in recently to see if Pearlâ€™s was the place to, as they say in New Orleans, â€œLaissez les bons temps roulerâ€ (let the good times roll).
The scene:Â Edgewater residents slunk into vinyl stools with gold nailhead trim and sipped boozy sazeracs ($10) while Louis Armstrong crooned and his Hot Five band blew out some jazz on the house speakers. A bevy of mirrors line the walls and the ceiling is decorated with glinting elegant chandeliers and a honey-colored cross-hatch of elegant wooden beamwork. A large framed photo of the noble bespectacled face of the restaurantâ€™s namesake Pearl loomed over the room like Warholâ€™s giant Mao painting does at the Art Institute of Chicago. After a couple of cocktails, I almost convinced myself that Bourbon Street, with all of its beads and debauchery, was just right outside.
The food:Â Classic New Orleans-inspired dishes such as barbecue shrimp ($12) and smoked chicken gumbo ($7) were better than average for Chicago, but they didnâ€™t quite rise to the heights you might find in the Big Easy. The gumbo was smoky, well-seasoned and studded with thick knobs of okra, but the broth was thin and peanut butter-colored. Depth of flavor and richness come with a darker-colored roux, the thickening base of a good gumbo, and Pearlâ€™s isnâ€™t quite there yet. The barbecue shrimpâ€”made with Turbodog ale from New Orleansâ€™ Abita brewery, pounds of butter, a vampire-assassinating mess of garlic and worcestershire sauceâ€”was more authentic. Many who try to recreate this dish in the North approximate with something like Sweet Baby Rayâ€™s sauce instead of the glorious, peppery gravy here. It was a bit oversalted and I also wished that the flavorful shells, head and all, were still on as they are in the version served at Mr. Bâ€™s in the French Quarter, but Pearlâ€™s version is good enoughâ€”as close as Iâ€™ll get to the real thing for a while. The jambalaya ($15) was a spot-on NOLA-worthy version, featuring spicy, rusty-hued tomato sauce and rice tossed with andouille sausage, shrimp and chicken sautÃ©ed to order. This to-order cooking is important, as a lot of the jambalaya Iâ€™ve tried in Chicago feels like it was cooked ahead and kept it in a steam table until itâ€™s reduced to a universal glop. At Pearlâ€™s, the rice grains are distinct, the shrimp had some bite and the chicken wasnâ€™t dried out. Crawfish Monica ($15), by contrast, was a mess of limp rotini slopped with creamy parmesan and previously frozen crawfish that gave off a fishy funk. I had better luck with the bayou boudin balls ($8) made from fried housemade boudin sausage crafted by chef de cuisine Dan Finelli with a base of creole-seasoned rice and creamy chicken liver. They were rich, meaty and incredibly savory, with fried mahogany-colored crust that crackled when I bit them. This was almost a dead ringer for the boudin balls I loved at New Orleansâ€™ venerable Cochon.
The drinks:Â The cocktail program overseen by Balena veteran Nic Lutton is top-notch. Whiskey drinks come with giant, window-clear ice cubes. The corpse reviver ($10), a frosty coupe filled with chilled lemony gin, sweet Cointreau and the bitter kiss of absinthe, was the best version of this classic Iâ€™ve had locally since the opening days of The Violet Hour. Don Draper of â€œMad Men,â€ aficionado of stiff drinks, would totally dig the Orange Blossom Special ($10) featuring spicy rye, orange-perfumed curacao and fruity, bitter amaro.
The sweets and service:Â Sweets were not nearly as successful as the savory selection or drinks. The strawberry shortcake ($8) featured a dry, tough biscuit that was scorched on the bottom, and the bread pudding ($8) was filled with grayish, unripe bananas that had the texture of an undercooked potato. The maitre d’ ambled from table to table, patting people folksily on the back while sharing stories about Grandma Pearl. I appreciated the conviviality, but overall, service was a mixed bag. After our server took our order, she returned to the table to confirm that I wanted both the gumbo and the jambalaya. When our food arrived, there were two bowls of gumbo, but no jambalayaâ€”and when she returned with the jambalaya, I already had finished the rest of my meal.
Bottom line:Â If you canâ€™t afford a flight to the Big Easy, Pearlâ€™s is a decent respite for those jonesing for New Orleans-inspired food and cocktails in Chicago. Avoid the mediocre sweets and drink your dessert instead.
Mini-review:Â Pearlâ€™s Southern Comfort
5352 N. Broadway 773-754-7419
Rating:Â ** 1/2 (out of four)Â
This article first appeared in Redeye Chicago in a different form.