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.
But the truth is, all the items were finely prepared and freshly plated, from the delicate blini with smoked salmon and salmon caviar to the chicken liver crêpes (a serious treat for chopped-liver fans) and the marinated mushrooms and smoked eggplant salads. The two hot appetizers, quartered potatoes pan-fried with garlic and puffy cheese turnovers -- not miniatures, mind you, but full size -- oozed satisfying amounts of butter. By the time the 20th starter comes around, or the waiter asks you if you need a refill of bread for the fifth time, you're likely to cast him a disbelieving glare. Unless, of course, you've matched shots of vodka to bites of food, which means you're just about facedown in the egg whites stuffed with a rich mix of cream cheese and walnuts.
In addition to appetite conviction (or a Jenny Craig commitment the next day), you also have to invest the time because, it seems, you can't rush a Russian. Our "reservation" was for 8 p.m.; by midnight, we'd received a double order of one of my favorite Russian delicacies, the pelmeni. These beef-stuffed pasta dumplings, similar to pierogi, were brought steaming hot and dripping with butter and were more than enough to take the edge off any remaining hunger we might have had. Which was a good thing, because we had yet to be served the first main course (choice of baked duck in apples, baked pork with vegetables, or fried salmon with white wine sauce). We could only imagine when the second main course (choice of Cornish hen, chicken Kiev, or pork chops baked in Russian crème) would arrive, let alone dessert. Feeling as if we were trapped at the kind of wedding of which nightmares are made -- when the cake is cut at 4 a.m., long after the band has retired for the evening -- we cried mercy.
When the server realized we intended to depart without eating the entrées, he graciously cut the bill down to $35 per person. Now, that's what I call hospitality. Pearl by the Sea may lose your reservation, deliberately or not, but once you pry your way into the clamshell, there's treasure to be had.