Monday, August 31, 2015

Pearl in the Grove - Dade City, FL

Not long after we arrived in Florida, I got wind of a revered fine dining establishment far removed from the environs of urban Tampa. Pearl in the Grove has an address listing in Dade City, which is located way out in eastern Pasco County (where there seem to be more cows than people) and bills itself as the "Kumquat Capital of the World", even boasting an annual festival celebrating said strange citrus fruit every January. As for the restaurant, it languished away on my local dining hit list for quite a while until I finally made the executive decision to grab the wife and head out to the country one warm Saturday night for supper.

As it turns out, PITG isn't located in Dade City proper, but about 4 miles west at the crossroads of County Roads 577 and 578 in the tiny hamlet of St. Joseph, where the lone gas station is probably one of the few places in America advertising kumquat pie (sadly, they were closed when we arrived). Owners Curtis and Rebecca Beebe appear to have taken a nondescript squat cinder block building at that intersection (a former house with a commercial kitchen) and transformed it into a farm-to-table showcase of the area's bounty.  It's not obvious exactly where the clientele arrives from, but arrive they do in droves, filling up the place most weekend evenings.

The restaurant's interior is sparsely decorated in the style of mid-century basement (I couldn't tell if it was 2015 or 1955) and is as cozy as a Florida cabin retreat.  While the view may have been slightly kitschy, the service, wine list, and foods on offer were most definitely not.  We began with a sizable platter of regional cheeses and cured meats.  Charcuterie plates these days are a dime a dozen, but this one was spectacular, featuring cheeses from Georgia's Sweetwater Dairy and Winter Park Dairy (near Orlando), plus sausages, pickled okra, and sweet sides like mostarda.

We also ordered a fried green tomato caprese, which included panko-crusted tomato slices sandwiching house made mozzarella, topped with a dollop of basil pesto, all served on a bed of greens from the garden outside, a dish classic, simple, uber-local, and uniquely Southern in equal measure.

This is one of those meals where we probably could have stopped after the appetizers; however, we pressed onward, selecting grass-fed strip steak (Mrs. Hackknife) and a slab of Palmetto Creek Farms pork belly (from nearby Avon Park) for me, an ethereal roulade stuffed with chopped Granny Smith apples, brushed with molasses, then smoked over pecan wood and served with more garden greens and a savory chili sweet potato mash that provided a solid kick to the cortex.

I was ready to roulade myself out the front door at this point, but Mrs. H. insisted on dessert, a featherlight yogurt panna cotta with fresh fruit and a touch of honey (no picture was taken) that I still managed to enjoy a few bites of before collapsing in glorious food coma agony into the passenger seat, thus concluding one of the best and most unique dining experiences we've had in Florida...

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