The first thing I noticed when walking into PearlStar, the new restaurant in the former A Tavola space in Over-the-Rhine, was how crowded it was. This is partly due to the space itself. It’s a narrow dining hall with a sleek bar and bustling open kitchen on one side and low, tightly packed tables on the other. The space gives one the impression of being in a ship’s galley, albeit a bright, polished one. More than that, it has been months—maybe years—since I’ve been in a place so electric. I should have expected it. This is, after all, one of the most buzzworthy new restaurants in recent history.
Owner Terry Raley has already opened several successful Nashville restaurants under his Amaranth Hospitality Group. PearlStar marks his first foray outside the Music City, and he brought some highly acclaimed chefs along for the ride. Executive Chef David Jackman is a Winnipeg, Canada, native who has worked in some of the best kitchens in America, including Grace in Chicago, SingleThread in Healdsburg, California, and The Catbird Seat in Nashville. Culinary and Operations Director Leroy Ansley, who collaborates with Jackman on the menu, worked at two beloved though sadly departed Over-the-Rhine restaurants, A Tavola and Senate. Suffice it to say, book your reservation well in advance if you plan on going.
The oysters are what packs them in, judging by the spread of bivalves that graced nearly every table. Our server, Raj, pleasantly and authoritatively guided us through the menu. The day’s “catch” is listed, along with sourcing information and delightfully poetic flavor profiles. Massachusetts’s Island Creek oysters, for instance, taste like “butter and brine with a mossy finish.” Descriptions like this are enough to make a food critic rejoice. The flavor, even more so. Much like the phantom breakers heard in a smooth seashell, the salt-blast from a well-slurped oyster has a way of transporting you to the coast. And for that half second before the cold beer washed the brine down, I was in Nantucket. Or New Brunswick. Or Prince Edward Island.
Chef Jackman works closely with a select group of small-batch oyster farmers, mostly in Eastern Canada and New England, relationships he’s cultivated over the course of his career. The oysters, like the fish, are flown in every 24 to 36 hours. With rotation like this, the oyster menu is guaranteed to be unique from customer to customer. Orders (minimum of four) are delivered on a bed of crushed ice with lemon wedges and a vinegary herbed mignonette sauce. Add a few refreshing drops of lemon and mignonette, mix in the additional fresh horseradish, house-made hot sauce, or cocktail sauce, and slurp your way to the sea. The other standout dish also came from the raw bar: the yellowfin carpaccio. Thin, bright pink slices of tuna nearly floated on a pungent chive aioli. A sprinkle of rye breadcrumbs added the perfect textural contrast to the velvety tuna. For $15, the five whisps of yellowfin would have been a meager portion, if we hadn’t spent so much time savoring it.
I savored most of the dishes I tried at PearlStar. The smoked trout mousse appetizer was exceptional. Spread over perfectly grilled toast points, the mousse was tart and buttery. The dish, with its accompaniment of pickles and grainy mustard, would be an instant mainstay at any classic kosher deli.
The entrées (Pearl “Stars,” as they’re called on the menu) were equal parts surf and turf. The Arctic char and Texas redfish lived up to the “star” billing. The char, with its topping of lemon caper butter, was creamy enough to eat by the spoonful while the soft, spicy redfish was flecked with a chocolaty chorizo oil that tasted like a master chef’s take on Cincinnati chili. Turf options include a hanger steak, a NY strip, and a steak sandwich. My landlubber friend went with the steak sandwich. The juicy strips of rare steak, topped with sharp Grana Padano (an Italian cheese, similar to parmesan), piquant horseradish, and a drizzle of truffle oil, was like a study in umami between two slices of firm-but-airy bread.
The sides at PearlStar are served à la carte, which can get tricky, as the small tables are soon covered in plates and bowls. Luckily, a rotating team of servers and bussers is on hand to remove plates and refill drinks with alacrity. The crispy fingerling potatoes—sprinkled with lemon juice and served with a rich mustard cream sauce—were the highlight. I would direct all spud afficionados to this dish. The wood-grilled beets were also a welcome addition to the table. With a hint of mint and feta, the warm beets cleansed our palates between bites of seafood.
All of this can be washed down with PearlStar’s extensive drink menu, curated by Aaron Patrick Strasser, formerly of Boca. There are plenty of wines and beers to choose from, and our servers were quick to recommend good pairings. There are also several creative, whimsical cocktails, like the citrusy Poolside Gin & Tonic. Other cleverly named cocktails include Thyme to Fly and Golf Pants. PearlStar takes its sourcing and preparation seriously, but it never forgets that dining out is meant to be fun.
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PearlStar, 1220 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine, (513) 381-0427