With the rest of the Central Coast subject to Sydney-like urban sprawl, the little, green enclave of Pearl Beach is somewhat of an oasis. Accessed by a narrow, winding road, this sheltered, horseshoe beach and surrounding residential village boasts just over six hundred dwellings, artfully tucked into the bushland landscape.
At the southern end of the golden arc of sand, you’ll find Pearls on the Beach in a softly-hued weatherboard beach cottage.
Placed so you can pretty much step from verandah to sand, the restaurant is airy and open, with its walls decked out in creamy coastal sand colours.
Faded old wooden floorboards, white tablecloths and cream chairs complete the look, kept carefully neutral to keep your attention on the (plate) art and the idyllic view.
Led by owner and head chef Scott Fox and his wife and restaurant manager, Melissa Fox, the floor team all display an easy-going, coastal charm.
Our waiter, from nearby Umina Beach, encourages us to order three small plates apiece. Dining as a trio, it makes sense to order the whole list of nine small plates, so we embark upon a share plate degustation of sorts, that kicks off with a pretty tangle of pea tendrils.
Fresh Ricotta ($24) sits at the base of the dish that celebrates vividly green produce – smashed peas, grilled zucchini, mint and sugar snaps – all fresher than you’ll find them at your local green grocer. It’s a great start to a well-realised menu that is dotted with unexpected combinations and broad multicultural influences.
Topped with puffed wild rice, the Cured Kingfish ($25) is made mild and creamy with mint jelly mayo. and juicy with a unique, honeydew melon surprise.
Plump, beautifully cooked Sea Scallops ($25) have a lovely interplay between bitter (beach greens and nasturtium oil) and milky (macadamia cream) with a native spiced nut crumble adding texture to the visually spectacular plate.
With entry-level wines starting in the fifties, the wine list, arranged by weight and texture, won’t kill you with their mark-ups. In a break between waves of dishes, I settle into my 2015 Domenica Roussanne Marsanne ($85), which is hard to find in a bottle shop much shy of fifty bucks. With stone fruit, flint, and floral notes, it’s a cracking wine easily able to gentle down for our earlier courses or expand to match the more gutsy dishes that are on the way.
Mexican Masa and Corn Fritters ($24) prove interesting against green mole and earthy huitlacoche (corn fungus) mayonnaise balanced by pickled onion, with pistachio crumbs adding texture.
Wrapped in reed basket of gai larn, XO Roast Eggplant ($24) with sesame, edamame, nori and puffed rice, ensures that eating vegetables at Pearls on the Beach is equally as interesting as eating meat.
Piled with three large BBQ King Prawns ($25) the next dish to land is an inspired, modern British-influenced, carrot vindaloo bisque juxtaposed with a green carrot top puree (nothing is wasted), black rice and yogurt. In flavour terms, this dish is a real winner; there's lots going on without losing the primacy of the meaty king prawns.
Our last wave of dishes kicks off with KFQ ($25). While the Korean fried quail is tasty, the banchan (Korean sides) lack the bite, texture and pungency I love about kimchi.
No matter, the next dish - Char Sui Pork Rillettes ($25) – is a return to form with the French classic taken Chinois against cassava crackers and wood ear fungus salad, with black vinegar to cut through the richness. It’s testament to the adventurous nature of Fox’s cooking that in nearly fourteen years of reviewing restaurants, I’ve never eaten a similar dish.
By the time we hit Twice Cooked Wagyu Beef Intercostals ($25) I’m getting a bit full – the small plates are more generously proportioned than the three each plus a dessert apiece rule makes out. Topped with juicy wet cucumber shards, pickled wakame, shallots and soy braised peanuts, the tender rib muscles are tasty and well-rendered with the sharpness of the kimchi dressing helping to cut the fat.
Schibello Caffe with a companion Pistachio and Ricotta Cake ($18) is a lovely way to wrap things up. It’s a really good savoury cake, with silky olive oil ice cream to balance the chalky cheese and nuts. Roasted cherries provide the only sweetness in this comforting but adult dessert.
While a quenelle of coriander sorbet is undoubtedly going to be polarising on the Coconut Sago ($18) that teams sago pearls with tart, pepper roasted pineapple, and cashew and palm sugar brittle, it illustrates Fox’s cooking well. Fox plays to the unexpected, and thus his restaurant is far from the twinset and conservative white pearls the name might summon. You'd be better placed if you consider Pearls on the Beach as an exotic, black, South Sea pearl - the highlight of my Central Coast dining thus far.
Pearls on the Beach
1 Tourmaline Avenue, Pearl Beach
Ph: (02) 4342 4400