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A Montclair newcomer pays gracious attention to detail and delivers well-executed Cal-French flavors.
Photo by Lori Eanes
While Robin and I slowly sipped two craft cocktails—a CK Cosmo and a Sandeman Manhattan—at the white-marble-topped bar, Perle Wine Bar & Bistro owner and sommelier Marcus Garcia was out on the Mountain Boulevard sidewalk busily trying to clean his restaurant’s big picture windows and swinging entry door. A glaring golden sunset behind him betrayed his efforts, highlighting the cloudy smudges and streaks that moved around the glass in swirls as he rubbed. Robin would later tease him that on our next visit she’d bring a squeegee and show him how it’s done.
Garcia’s hands-on attention to detail resurfaced frequently during our three dinners at Perle—from gracefully waving linen napkins onto our laps to delivering a small red abalone shell full of coarse salt, suggesting that the salt would bring out more flavor from the fried oyster deviled eggs topped with trout roe—and it carried over to the staff. The night we ate at the bar, our tender, Nina, brought a small, complementary dish of olives to supplement our Mimolette (cheddar) and jambon (ham) cheese and charcuterie plate. While awaiting our pot de crème dessert on our third visit, I noticed a crumb of hamburger bun on the bare-wood tabletop, but before the thought gave way to another, our server, Brian, appeared with a cloth and swept the stray bit away. And on every visit it seemed routine practice to double check the polish on flatware and the shine on wine glasses when resetting a table, and double and triple check on our well-being, including visits by the host and the chef.
Focus on the finer points of hospitality is probably one reason Perle’s approximately 50 table seats (chairs and banquettes) and 11 barstools were full, with people waiting, on a September Saturday night just two months after the bistro opened. Other reasons have to do with what this bar a manger (that’s how our French waiter, Sebastien, said a restaurant like Perle would be categorized in Paris, rather than as a bistro or brasserie) has injected into the burgeoning Montclair Village dining scene: a peerlessly snazzy—as well as convivial—bar that serves complex “featured” cocktails (tequila negroni, espresso martini, peach derby) and can deliver a fine $9 Sazerac; an upscale, French-inspired, California-cuisine menu from Vietnam-born chef Robert Lam, who operated Butterfly in San Francisco for 15 years and has brought his A game to Oakland; and a six-page wine list curated by Garcia, formerly of Fleur de Lys, that allows you to spend as little as $4 for a taste, $9 for a glass, or $31 for a bottle from the mostly French, California, and Italian varietals, to as much as $3,500 for a 1962 grand cru Burgundy.
The menu hit myriad prices, as well. Some raised eyebrows—$7 for a small portion of cheese, $14 for a large yellow heirloom Brandywine tomato with a scoop of brown butter ricotta inside, but just one pickled strawberry, a few small chunks of avocado, and wedges of a mealy red tomato. The presentations were meticulously spectacular, but paying for art and paying for food are different propositions. On the other fork, at this level of dining, the tariffs seemed reasonable for the aforementioned deviled eggs (crunchy, creamy, briny), the burger (on a milk bun with Gruyère cheese, caramelized onions, and large ramekin of French onion soup for dipping), and even the $38 steak (more on that later). Likewise, the vivid, clean, and defined flavors of the two “Firsts” we tried (of five offered)—smoked salmon on toast with crème frâiche, cherry tomatoes, and dill, and a salad of avocado, little gems, nectarine, and cumin yogurt—testified to creativity and deftness in the kitchen.
Photo by Lori Eanes
From the menu’s “Pearls” and “Firsts,” I put off partaking of any of the oysters in five different preparations (Robin demurs), the beef tartar and bone marrow (ditto), and the pricy caviar service and pan-seared abalone; they might find their way to me at future dinners. But we could not resist the entrée portion of mussels, about 15 of them in a Pernod broth with tiny fennel sausage meatballs, saffron rouille, and fried bread—hard to share and hard to finish.
Every time we followed the suggestion of a server, it was advice well taken. Both Sebastien and Brian recommended the Villaudiere Sancerre to pair with mussels one night, with the heirloom tomato on another. Its bright, flinty crispness worked perfectly in both cases. It was because Sebastien said the Angus onglet steak would be his choice over the chicken roti that I ordered it on a subsequent visit. The borderline-fussy plating had six medallions of hanger steak (cooked on the rare side of medium-rare) arranged on swirls of mushroom demi-glace, around a big cheesy mound of pommes Dauphinoise; a small cast-iron skillet of foie gras béarnaise (and, no, I would not miss the foie gras) sat on a separate plate. Each of the 15 to 18 bites of beef carried a hint of charcoal smoke and, when swept up with a smear of demi and a dollop of béarnaise, proved that a single morsel can create a world of flavor grander than the whole. As a pairing, Brian steered me to the 2006 Pergolaia Caiarossa Tuscan blend from Pisa, a superb match and one of the best-structured and mature red wines by the glass I’ve had in years. All the desserts, such as crème brûlée and baba rum, have suggested pairings, but I continued to nurse the Tuscan as Robin and I polished off the remarkable hot chocolate pot de crème with its warm espresso-laced pudding oozing around a cakelike interior beneath a snowbank of Chantilly with “Perle” dusted with matcha in script on top. (For a subtler evocation of the restaurant’s name, note the way hidden mini lights on the back-bar shelving create “string of pearls” reflections in the glassware.)
Upscale and refined enough to become a destination for wine connoisseurs and sophisticated diners, Perle also provides enough small-plate options and affable ambience to become a neighborhood spot for a more casual drink and a bite. I plan to investigate the cocktails and learn more about wine there, and maybe we can work a trade for Robin washing the windows.
Perle Wine Bar & Bistro
California, French. 2058 Mountain Blvd., Oakland, 510-808-7767. Charcuterie, cheese, “Pearls,” and “Firsts” $7-$68, mains $16-$38, sides $8, desserts $10, featured cocktails $11-$14, beer (draft and bottled) $6-$11, wine by the glass $9-$55, by the bottle $31-$3,500. Serves dinner Tue.–Sun. 5-10 p.m. www.PerleWineBar.com