It’s hard not to be won over by a barman who describes his process as “Mr. Potato Head style — you end up with all these parts and try to figure out where they go.”
That’s how Gavin Koehn, who runs the cocktail program at the new Pearl Social, talks about creating a drink list that splits into such categories as Timeless, Rule Breakers, Come Back Kids, and Susan B. Anthony — the latter being non-alcoholic delights even a temperance leader could love. Those cocktails, along with a small but expertly curated menu of food from The Lark’s Chef Jason Paluska, are making Pearl Social the latest fetching Funk Zone creation from Acme Hospitality, who’s brought us The Lark, Loquita, Tyger Tyger, and so forth.
Occupying the former Les Marchands space, Pearl Social transforms the room into something somehow both larger, with most of the wine bottles and the central wall of windows removed, and more intimate, with its deep-blue-painted walls. There will be music at least five nights a week, sometimes vinyl (if you bring in five playable LPs, you can trade them for a cocktail), often combos, and a ticketed event once a month (opening night featured musicians who regularly play with Jackson Browne and David Crosby).
“We don’t want it to seem like some pretentious hotel bar or a New York place with bartenders with waxed mustaches,” Koehn asserted. “We have no attitude. We just want to do what cocktails should do — be about having fun.”
So, one of Koehn’s hidden rules for drink creation is that it must be something new. “We wanted to differentiate ourselves from The Lark and Loquita in particular, which are about being seasonal,” he said about the sister properties. He’d know, as he ran the latter’s bar program for a spell before working as a brand ambassador for Gin Mare. “Instead,” he said, “we will offer classic riffs and unique spirits.”
Take one of the current showstoppers from the Rule Breakers section: the Starling. It starts with Golden Moon Kummel, which Koehn refers to as Scandinavian caraway gin, but then it’s also got pine, Fino sherry (there’s his time at Loquita showing), and tonic. Add it up, and you get a gin and tonic more floral and less juniper, plus there’s a secret — two dashes of Rumple Minze peppermint liquor for a hint o’ mint. “I’d like to think we’re the only bar to keep it in a dasher bottle,” joked Koehn.
That cocktail has a perfect pairing waiting on the food menu: Smoked Trout Dip served with malt vinegar Kennebec potato chips, dill pickled fennel, trout roe, and celery. Chef Paluska said the dish “is cool; it’s fun; it makes sense. It’s a play on fish and chips.” But, of course, it’s also both elegant and simple.
Paluska holds up San Francisco’s acclaimed bar Trick Dog as a model. Recalling how he got to attend an opening event there in 2012, he recalled, “I looked at the menu and it was chef-driven. They were actually doing the culinary side as well. That resonated with me.” Trying to achieve the same at Pearl Social, he makes clear that “the menu will evolve a lot as we see what works and what doesn’t.” The opening menu had oysters, for example, but when they weren’t getting ordered, off they went.
For most of all, Pearl — named after Santa Barbara conservationista Pearl Chase, by the way — aims to please. Take that Comeback Kids section of the menu. “We like to catch people a little off guard,” Koehn explained. “They’ll settle in the leather chairs and hear the jazz singer … and find an Appletini on the menu.” He hopes to take denigrated non-classics and “challenge myself to make something sophisticated and enjoyable.”
Now, as a patron, all you have to do is not feel too embarrassed to order a Porn Star. Or maybe just stick to his dirty martini riff, a Mirepoix Martini, which just happens to be Paluska’s personal fave on the list now. It completely nails the chef-driven food at a cocktail bar vibe of Pearl, what with a water bath process to extract flavor out of carrots, celery, and white peppercorns and put them into the gin. A bit of fino sherry, olive brine, and a cocktail onion, plus the cutest infant carrot (it’s not big enough to even be a baby carrot) garnish.
“We’ve got a large audience at The Lark, and that comes with a bit of paranoia,” said Paluska. “You have to keep impressing people, even if it’s ‘just’ a mellow Monday night in November. Here at Pearl, we want to apply that drive to a simple bar menu and see how far we can take it.”
131 Anacapa St., Ste. B, 284-0380, pearlsocialsb.com