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RestaurantsSanta Cruz
10.28.09

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Phaedra

Photograph by Curtis Cartier
currying flavor: Pearl of the Ocean proprietor Ayoma Wilen sees to the details.

Pearl in An Ocean

Spice-laden vegetarian dishes are the specialty at this tiny Sri Lankan dining room

By Christina Waters


SMALL and intimate, an attractive assortment of artwork adorning the coral-hued walls, this little Sri Lankan dining room makes a special invitation to those who like vegetarian dining. But there is plenty of lamb and chicken on offer as well.

Service is warm and sporadic, almost as if patrons had dropped into a private home where not every aspect of dinner is ready at the same time. Still, timing is important in the culinary world, as in other domains of life, and it's difficult to feel that the management is entirely in control of its operation when entrees arrive before appetizers and food arrives before drinks.

A plate filled with four very fat spring rolls ($8.75) arrived before our water or wine. It came with a very sweet mango jam and austere interior ingredients. Each transparent rice wrapper contained a huge quantity of shredded lettuce, bits of sweet tempeh, lots of julienned carrots and not much else. We were disappointed that the sweet mango relish did nothing to boost the appetizer's flavor.

Our meal really began, eventually, with Irene's appetizer of chile chickpea ($6) and my entree of Sri Lankan-style noodles, plus griddle-baked paan ($5), a huge flat bread much like pita, only softer. These arrived together. The accompanying garlic dip gave the bread some welcome oomph. Served in a white bowl, the chickpeas had been simmered in chile, coconut milk and mustard seeds, with added kick from plenty of garlic. It was a nice dish, but might have worked better as a side dish to some larger central idea. The flavors proved too mono-dimensional to work as a stand-alone appetizer. A glass of Ernst & Company South African Sauvignon Blanc ($6.50) was quite dry and flavorful, if tardy, arriving halfway through our meal. The Pacific Oasis pinot noir from Santa Barbara was also a fine accompaniment to the meal ($8).

My Sri Lankan-style noodles ($18) arrived with a large plate of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce. The entree was a vast plate of noodles tossed in coriander and ginger-intensive spices and inflected with carrots and tomatoes. Chicken, $2 extra, arrived in a heavily spiced sauce.

Our other entree of lamb curry ($16.50) finally arrived, joined by thinly chopped and braised kale, rice and delicious chunks of lamb roasted in curry powder and almond sauce. Yellow lentil dhal and extremely sweet eggplant sauté joined the other veggies, and a thin, crisp papadam sat on top of the entree, making a jaunty top note for the dish.

While it was not our mission that evening, the quest for spicy vegan cooking can easily lead to Pearl's vegetarian-intensive menu, and I imagine that for vegan dishes alone, there must be a local following. The atmosphere was pleasant and intimate, and the staff was often cordial and friendly.



Pearl of the Ocean

Address: 736 Water St., Santa Cruz

Phone: 831.457.2350

Hours: 11:30am-2:30pm and 5:30-9pm Tue-Sun
(open till 9:30pm Fri-Sat)


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