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A. Speak Russian or English with a Russian accent, or have a Russian surname.
B. Know that "semi-formal attire is required" and dress as if you're going to a bar mitzvah: lots of sequins and spangles.
C. BYOV (Bring Your Own Vodka) in a Publix bag despite the fact that the menu clearly states "no outside alcohol beverages allowed."
D. Any (or all) of the above.
The correct answer, of course, is D. And under normal circumstances, I most likely wouldn't have trouble securing a table at Pearl by the Sea. While I'm not, figuratively speaking, a card-carrying member of the club, I could pass. My ancestors are Russian, and my last name translates from the Russian into "carriage-maker." I've been to my share of bar mitzvahs. I have no objection to buying vodka at the supermarket.
But dining out as an anonymous restaurant critic isn't exactly a normal circumstance. I can't make a reservation under my own name and take advantage of my heritage. I don't have any items of clothing decorated with sequins (other than my wedding dress, which likely would have been too formal for the occasion). I shouldn't deliberately get so loaded on Smirnoff that I forget what I've eaten (notice that I said deliberately).
So I did what any Joe Diner would do: I left a message on the restaurant's voice mail requesting a reservation under a generic name that's easy to spell. But when I called back later in the day to confirm, it appears I didn't have a reservation. So I made another one under the same name. But when I showed up with my guests, I found myself still with no official reservation. Given the conspicuous absence of grocery bags, spangles, post-cold war gutturals, or apparent connections with any of the businessmen conducting a dozen different handshake deals in the lobby, the host led us very reluctantly to a table in the back of the large banquet hall, the décor of which -- think giant satin clamshell stage sets -- reflects the name of the restaurant.
Despite the initial and seemingly innate suspicion of outsiders, however, the Russian staff in the end proved properly welcoming and reassuringly professional, with no off-putting superiority. For instance, our server was happy to recommend a vodka brand to us when we realized we were the only table without the libation. "Grey Goose," he said promptly.
"But that's French vodka," we noted.
"Yes," he nodded. "That's why it's the best."
He was also patient when explaining Pearl's system to us, which does require some explanation for first-timers. Each diner is charged a minimum of $35 per person to subsidize the extensive cabaret show that begins at 10 p.m. This is actually a better deal than some other types of dinner-theater shows around town where you can be charged an additional fee for the entertainment (Mai-Kai comes to mind). The quality of said entertainment easily justifies the expense. Before the cabaret show, a singer works the room, warbling Russian folk tunes and versions of contemporary American songs. The show itself comprises dance pieces that range from classic ballet numbers to Solid Gold-meets-the-Kremlin disco bits to tongue-in-cheek skits in which Russian Orthodox "nuns" whip off their robes to dance around in white lace G-strings.
So you may as well order at least $35 worth from the traditional á la carte Russian menu, which is easier said than done, given the reasonable prices. You can also take advantage of a $35 prix-fixe offer, which includes three courses (but no vodka, so do as others do and hit Publix beforehand). Or you can skip the difficult decision-making process and go with a five-course banquet featuring upward of 25 dishes: nearly 20 cold appetizers, a pair of hot starters, two main courses, and a variety of pastries and fruits for dessert. The last option costs only $50 per person and provides you with a taste of just about every dish on the menu, a value I recommend.
That is, if you have the stamina for it. The server brings hot rolls and about five room-temperature appetizers at a time. Since just the plate of pickled red tomatoes, cucumbers, red cabbage, and celery, one of the first cold starters to appear, can be filling, it behooves a patron to take small bites and show restraint. None of the dishes we sampled was anything less than good, but some are more culturally interesting than others. For example, the field greens with vinaigrette was truly pleasant. But it paled in comparison to the herring-vegetable salad -- a savory combination of chopped fish, chopped egg, chopped potatoes, and shredded, marinated red cabbage. Also excellent were the meat gelatin, a cold slab of roast beef trapped with a slice of egg and a slice of carrot in aspic; and the home-style ham, more like roasted pork than ham cured with salt, topped with freshly grated horseradish mixed with beet juice. The combination of smoky and sharp flavors here was tantalizing.