IN THE KITCHEN C.K. Pearl owner/chef Patrick Shea knows Essex, intimately. He was raised at the Essex River House Motel, and started working at the family restaurant, Tom Shea’s, as a 12-year-old dishwasher. He apprenticed at the now-defunct Yanks in Beverly Farms, then enhanced his cooking chops in Colorado, at Johnson & Wales University, and with a further apprenticeship at Zibibbo in Carregi in Italy. Tours with three Boston-area restaurants led him to the executive chef position at Barrel House American Bar in Beverly. He returns to Essex a family man, with wife Mercedes and daughters Copley and Kennlee (the “C” and the “K” in the restaurant’s name).
THE LOCALE Shea’s is the latest restaurant to be housed in the former Max Callahan’s Riverside House, next to Tom Shea’s along the town’s causeway, snug up against the Essex River. He has created a warm wood-grained atmosphere where families, friends, and couples can have a good meal without breaking the bank. They enter via a small vestibule, which opens up to a grand bar with high-backed chairs.
Friends who’ve been to C.K. Pearl several times since it opened June 1 say it has only gotten better over time, always a good sign for a new venue.
I had requested a quiet table (yes, they take reservations), and we were seated promptly near an expansive bank of windows along the back wall. In the dining room, the tables are spaced to create a sense of privacy. The windows overlook the sprawling Essex marsh, which during daylight provides views worthy of an Impressionist painting.
ON THE MENU Shea said he wants C.K. Pearl to offer “a spirited, modern approach to traditional New England fare.” The menu reflects his diverse training, with items like coq au vin ($25), tendercrop steak (market price), and scallops & bacon ($28), offset by fun comfort foods like mac and cheese ($12) and a backyard burger ($13) at the bar. And Shea plans to unveil a new dinner menu this month.
My wife, Lauri, continued her long-running Cosmopolitan tour of the North Shore, ordering a Ketel One version ($10) from a superlative cocktail and wine menu. She gave this version her seal of approval, high praise indeed. For an appetizer, we tried ahi tuni tacos ($15), served in three soft-shell tacos and minimal garnish. That’s a plus, because the tuna strips were done perfectly, seared on top, succulent and flavorful underneath.
My wife’s fresh fish radar zoomed in on the baked dayboat Cod ($24) accompanied by an exceptional lobster risotto that had chunks of luscious meat. “Do you see this lobster?” asked my wife, almost in disbelief. The thick cut of cod, as the dish’s name implies, was same-day fresh.
I chose my entrée from the nightly specials, a barbecue combo plate ($18) with two meaty pork ribs, two melt-in-your-mouth pulled pork sliders, a mound of French fires (a tad too much salt), and a delightful apple coleslaw that was more than just an afterthought. A Maker’s Mark bourbon ($9), on the rocks, was the ideal complement.
Though the appetizer and entrees were plenty, we couldn’t resist treating ourselves to a delectable apple strudel with vanilla ice cream ($6). Rich, without being cloyingly sweet, the strudel had a bacon glaze that gave the dish a subtle smoky complexity. My wife, the most generous person I know, didn’t want to share. But the dessert did put a bow on a completely delightful evening at Essex’s newest restaurant.
C.K. Pearl, 112 Main St., Essex. 978-890-7378, www.ckpearlessex.com.Brion O’Connor can be reached at email@example.com.