Eats & Greets: The Pearl at Sam Houston Hotel Is A Classy Downtown Option
If you’re looking for a fresh new seafood spot for lunch, dinner, before a theater performance or even before bar hopping in downtown Houston, The Pearl Restaurant & Bar is well worth a gander. The chef is Chris Loftis, whose experience includes Killen’s Steakhouse in Pearland, Number 13 in Galveston and Caracol. (According to Houstonia, Loftis was originally slated to be the opening chef for Ortega’s Xochi but that “didn’t work out.”)
Longtime Houstonians will find the spot familiar—it’s the old site of 17 restaurant at the Sam Houston Hotel (1117 Prairie). Once upon a time, that was an important establishment where top-notch culinary professionals such as chef Ryan Pera and pastry chef Becky Masson spent time before going on to open their own restaurants, bakeries and the like. Then, 17 seemed to devolve, with no name talent or dishes to generate any excitement or interest. (My last visit, years ago, was during a woeful lunchtime where the floor was staffed with one hostess and one server. It took two hours to get out of there—and one was spent just waiting for the appetizer.)
It was high time for an overhaul—and The Pearl is a graceful one. Big chandeliers of oyster shells grace the romantic bar while a spacious dining room awaits on the other side of the entry foyer. In fact, those lovely chandeliers are a portent of things to come if you dive into the raw bar menu, which features snapper crudo, raw oysters (Gulf and East coast), roasted oysters and more.
We were invited to try the dinner menu, where the cooked seafood dishes are the stars. A starter of fried Gulf oysters and pickled jalapenos ($14) proved an early favorite. Rather than eating the peppers with the crispy-coated mollusks, the cool, spicy slices were ideal as peppy palate cleansers that contrasted with the warm oysters. To up the ante, big chunks of roasted lardons were thrown in the mix. It was an experience well worth repeating.
An Indian-influenced grouper ($29) was also a sail-away hit. Corn kernels seasoned with a complex curry spice mix paired elegantly with green lentils. The two together dovetailed beautifully with the thick filet for a meaty meal that remained comfortably light.
Our early visit did reveal a few items in need of tweaking. For example, preserved lemon lent an unwanted tangy taste to fresh burrata served with fresh heirloom tomatoes, charred avocado and cucumbers. Ditching it would make the $11 dish worthwhile. On the dessert side, the dense carrot cake was seemed a close relative to banana bread. Still, the classic baking spices and silky cream cheese frosting satisfied the traditional hankerings. Toasty, s’mores-style marshmallows were a fun touch, too.
Those works in progress didn’t put us off the idea of a second visit. In fact, we’re more interested in seeing how The Pearl might evolve over time.
Oddly, the Curio Hotel Collection by Hilton web site does not have up-to-date information. It still says The Pearl Restaurant & Bar is “opening soon”—and there’s no menu posted. So, click here for a photo of the menu. This classy establishment is very much worth at least an initial time investment.
Updated, 4/18/17, 7:38 a.m.: A public relations representative for The Pearl Restaurant & Bar provided us with a web site link. (That said, we do think that the hotel needs to update its information as well, as it shows up on the first page of Google search results.)
Phaedra Cook has written about Houston’s restaurant and bar scene since 2010. She was a regular contributor to My Table magazine (now closed) and was the lead restaurant critic for the Houston Press for two years, eventually being promoted to food editor. Cook founded Houston Food Finder in November 2016 and has been its editor and publisher ever since.