One of the best of Chicago’s many seafood restaurants is tucked away in a quiet corner of the Loop on the shores of the Chicago River. The Pearl Tavern sits at 180 Wacker Drive in the farthest northwest corner of the Loop (between Lake and Randolph) and serves up some of the most excellent seafood in the city.
The restaurant is in a beautiful, vintage space reminiscent of a 1930s bar. According to their website, “The hardwood floors are naturally kept, in addition to the vintage ceilings and the craftsmen style millwork that have been restored. The 1930s style wallpaper and ceiling murals of mermaids honor Pearl Tavern’s emblem. Guests will dine at ornate bistro seating with Carrera marble, gold brass lighting and the Chicago River as the backdrop.”
The Pearl is justifiable well-known for its wonderful Oyster & Crudo Bar. If you’re just in the mood for a light bite, try some of their fresh oysters. Pearl’s master oyster shucker, Matthew, receives a call every morning between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. from both the East and West coasts. The oysters are then flown in fresh, twice daily to O’Hare (at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.). You won’t find better, fresher oysters anywhere in Chicago.
Recently, the Pearl welcomed a new corporate chef, Frank Valdez, and invited me to stop by to sample some of his inventive new menu items. Valdez knew he wanted to become a chef from an early age. A Chicago native, Valdez decided to enroll at the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of America at the age of 22 and forgo a degree in finance. Following culinary school, Frank was part of the opening team at Café des Architectes, which he credits for confirming his desire to become a chef. Frank continued on become the chef de cuisine at Mexique under the guidance of chef Carlos Gaytan, during which time was awarded two Bib Gourmands (2011 and 2012) and a Michelin Star in 2013 and 2014. Chef Frank Valdez is proud to say that he still has the same enthusiasm as the first day he set foot in a professional kitchen.
Frank is inspired by his surroundings and fresh, seasonal ingredients, “Something guests can expect every time they dine at Pearl Tavern,” he says. Valdez’s current menu emphasizes seasonality, big bold flavors, and creativity not currently found in many Loop establishments.
On a recent visit, my guest and I were able to sample several of Chef Valdez’ new signature items:
OYSTER & CRUDO BAR
Shrimp Cocktail (ginger-horseradish cocktail sauce, fennel cracker) – It is a temptation to dismiss shrimp cocktails as outdated or boring, but that would be a mistake on this menu. Chef Valdez has upgraded the traditional shrimp cocktail here by creating an intriguing sauce combining ginger and horseradish. The addition of the fennel cracker adds both a crunchy texture and a nice additional flavor to the whole combination.
Salmon Tartare (capers, red onion, dill, horseradish crème fraiche, bagel crisp) – On the prior menu this was one of my favorites so I was concerned that it might be changed, but not for the better. No worries! This is another excellent addition to the new menu. The tartare is expertly seasoned and the combination with the horseradish crème fraiche is inspired.
Charred Octopus (black olive tapenade, fingerling potato confit, tarragon aioli) – What’s not to love here? The octopus is lightly charred, but still tender and flavorful. One of my favorite things about this dish is the combination of the olive tapenade with the tarragon aioli. The layers of flavor are amazing.
Crab Empanadas (avocado mousse, coconut curry vinaigrette) – The crust is flaky and light, the filling full of crab meat, and the superb combination of fluffy avocado mousse with the coconut curry vinaigrette adds both texture and multiple layers of delightful flavor.
Sea Scallops (carrot puree, charred baby carrots, pickled mango relish) – Scallops are notoriously hard to prepare well, but they do it perfectly here. When you sear a scallop, there’s a dense, rich flavor profile that can be almost too creamy. That is offset here by the pickled mango relish and is complemented by the sweet carrot puree. This is another wonderfully well-layered dish.
Hoosier Mama – The Pearl proudly serves products from Hoosier Mama. The offerings will change daily, but if you have ever had anything from Hoosier Mama, you know that you will never be disappointed.
The menu is far more extensive than just the items we sampled, so be sure to stop by often to enjoy as many of Chef Valdez’ creations as possible!
The Pearl Tavern is located at 180 Wacker Drive. They are open Monday – Friday, 11 a.m. – 2 a.m. You can reach them at (312) 629-1030. You can get more info on their website, follow them on Twitter, or like them on Facebook.