Perle is Truly a Gem
Fancy yet fun, this new Montclair bistro and wine bar has it all.
Fox Island mussels stewed with fennel sausage, shallots, tomato, and garlic.
A little after 9 p.m. on a recent Thursday, Perle Wine Bar was in full swing, and a crisply dressed Marcus Garcia marched into his restaurant, making a beeline for our table. Startled at first, I soon realized he was just angling for the dimmer switch behind me. To Garcia’s eye, Perle’s flashy dining room needed a little softening.
Still, Garcia—a father of four who lives in Concord—made us feel particularly special and part of a select crowd. “I’m opening a three-liter bottle,” said the restaurant co-owner and sommelier, after drawing us into relaxed conversation and asking if we’d care for champagne. “I’m pouring a glass for everyone.”
As the assistant manager at Prima Ristorante in Walnut Creek for five years and the wine director at Fleur de Lys in San Francisco for more than a decade, Garcia has cultivated a deep knowledge of wine, while great customer service comes from instinct. A keen eye for detail balances his larger-than-life personality. (The moment I broke out my credit card, for instance, he disengaged from a lively group at the bar to retrieve our check.)
On my first visit—arriving at 5:31 p.m.—the suave Garcia and marble-accented dining room felt disturbingly posh—better suited to Hollywood or Vegas than Montclair Village. Greeted by a beaming, French-accented waiter, we felt a little bit self-conscious. But as the restaurant filled, we fully relaxed, and by the time the food arrived, we were completely sold on the concept. Because Perle’s biggest superstar, it turns out, is chef and co-owner Robert Lam.
Our first appetizer brought split-roasted marrowbone showered in vibrant green herbs and purple flower petals. On the same plate, lying in wait, a circle of beef tartare came dotted with caviar-sized “pearls” of truffle juice (a spherical trick of molecular gastronomy). We spread both meat and marrow on the accompanying toast points, and then turned to the breadbasket. And once the bone was wiped clean and the last bit of pristine steak consumed, we slathered the remaining bread with Lam’s tangy house-turned butter, with its hint of roasted garlic and sprinkle of pink peppercorns.
Dish after dish made an impression. Raw oysters opened their shells to ocean-fresh uni and brûléed foie gras, creating a creamy umami sensation. It was “Suprême,” just as the oyster dish is called.
My favorite creation, however, was a bowl of plump Fox Island mussels stewed with shallots, garlic, and tomato; deglazed with Pernod; and garnished with cubes of just-fried French bread—a brilliant touch. Streaks of saffron rouille, a flutter of fresh dill, and juicy spheres of fennel sausage added layers of flavor.
Lam, who sold his Asian-fusion restaurant, Butterfly, in San Francisco after running it for 17 years, is having a blast cooking French Mediterranean. (He staged at Acquerello in San Francisco during Perle’s remodel to hone up on his Italian cooking, and his refined pastas prove it.) And he is a consistently relaxed presence in the dining room, delivering plates and checking in with guests.
Despite the foie gras and four-figure Bordeaux and Burgundies, Perle is a venture in fun—as much a drop-in neighborhood wine bar as a fine-dining foray. The menu includes a French onion dip burger and charcuterie “snacks,” such as a meaty slab of tête de cochon (an aspic-bound blend of flavorful Berkshire and Kurobuta pork)—just a couple of the inexpensive options. And all the wine-friendly small plates—we adored the gorgeous house-smoked salmon toasts and deviled eggs topped with fried oysters—lend the 46-seat Perle (including 11 at the marble bar) a casual air.
Many of the hundreds of wines on the list are priced in the $40 range per bottle, and a wide selection of wines and champagnes are available by the glass or 2.5-ounce tastes. On our visit, even the most expensive glass (priced at $39—a local shout-out to Livermore’s Steven Kent) was still a tremendous value; the 2012 Lineage retails for around $150 a bottle.
Having opened on a bit of a shoestring and being overwhelmed with walk-ins during its opening weeks, Perle did fall short of Michelin-star status. Some of the accessories needed replacing, and toward the end of the night—when the tiny exhibition kitchen was slammed—our plates of lush onglet steak and sous vide poulet rôti were not as precisely presented as Lam would have hoped, I’m sure.
But if there are any vulnerabilities, they only add to Perle’s humanity. (The restaurant’s name is inspired by champagne beads, oysters, and other gems of the sea.) This is a one-of-a-kind restaurant whose owners are probably the most likable geniuses you’ll ever meet.
And where else are you going to get a free glass of Pol Roger champagne, along with a backstory of how it was Winston Churchill’s favorite?
2058 Mountain Blvd., Oakland, (510) 808-7767, perlewinebar.com. Dinner Tues.–Sat., brunch Sun.