Winter has started showing its stormy face, with the Fleurieu coastline putting on a spectacular display of wind-whipped beaches, crashing waves and that salty sting of sideways rain. Today our refuge is a modern shack-style structure propped right on the rugged sand dunes of Aldinga Beach. We’re at Pearl, which, at first glance, might seem like a typical SA seaside café-kiosk, but its seafood-centric, fresh produce-driven menu puts this eatery squarely into restaurant territory.

Inside, the fit-out is fresh, clean and unfussy, with views from the internal dining space directly into a large and pumping kitchen. Only the enclosed section of the outdoor terrace can be used today but there’s a two-sided wraparound for days when the weather is more forgiving. The furniture inside is basic and we soon find the tables are much too small to cope with multiple diners or plates as they start to arrive. The settings come off as a little bit picnicky – slatted tabletops and all – and it’s a bit of a shame because we’re about to discover that the food is anything but.

A diced beetroot concoction has us off to a pleasant enough start. A bit like a dip that’s been prepared with good knife skills to create uniform chunks, this has been pimped up with scattered pomegranate, chopped walnuts and sprigs of fresh dill, all made to be scooped onto hot wedges of Turkish pide bread. The main component has a nice hit of acid and expected earthy flavour from both beets and walnuts; the plating is fine, but it’s a little messy to eat.

The beetroot starter. Photo: Paul Wood

It’s the next dish that amps things up, displaying some more fine knife skills, in this case used to fillet Port Lincoln-caught sardines into uniform fillets, splayed in a circular form on a plate. These local imports are spectacular in texture and taste, largely thanks to agrodolce – a sweet and sour sticky sauce made using honey and vinegar. It’s a surprising hit of delectable flavour, first assumed to be plain olive oil pooled beneath the lightly cooked fillets. A central melange of almonds and currants and generously applied herbs offer further texture and taste to the dish that has an underlying citrus note, singing a song of distant seas and thoughtful preparation of a fish that deserves more attention than it often gets.

Sardines sourced from Port Lincoln and broccolini with creme fraiche. Photo: Paul Wood

Next comes broccolini, and it’s the smoky scent that hits before flavour follows. An earthy and lightly spiced condiment with a creme fraiche base melts through charred stems that still retain their crunch. Some good olive oil, scattered almonds and a squeeze of lemon are the only other things added to this side that has real potential as a main. It’s about here that we begin to feel the squeeze at the table, too, with lunch becoming a jigsaw of dishes and side plates landing while others wait to be cleared, and then a bucket for the wine tips the balance to the point we are re-stacking glasses to save space. This isn’t a service or staff issue (the staff is an absolute delight and service has been steady and well-timed) but a basic one about flatware selection versus table surface area.

The grill is used again, this time on a segmented cos head with blackened edges generously coasted with an unctuous white miso sauce that seeps between leaves. The lettuce holds its shape and the centre retains its fresh crispness while the miso provides a punch of salty flavour. Toasted seeds on top add further texture and earthy notes, while ginger imparts its fragrant scent and light bitter taste. This is another simply prepared dish that proves that less is always more when it comes to preparing vegetables (or salad) that are this fresh and flavoursome. Pearl’s produce-driven ethos is more than just lip-service.

Simple and delicious cos lettuce. Photo: Paul Wood

It’s time to move to more robust mains, courtesy of a sturdy clay bowl containing half a kilo of meaty mussels still simmering in a sauce of tomato, fennel and garlic. You can rarely go wrong with this simple style of preparation and Pearl’s is a hearty version of a classic. The vegetables are nicely cooked to the point of falling apart while the mussels remain tender and just done. Say yes to extra bread – you’ll need it to mop up the sauce when only empty shells remain.

Fish of the day: KI silver trevally. Photo: Paul Wood

And now (quite stuffed) we’re onto the dish of the day. Kangaroo Island-caught silver trevally fillet is cooked with its perfectly crispy and lightly charred skin maintaining firm but silky flesh that easily pulls apart. This is again served family-style on a platter (that’s too big for the table) piled with accompaniments of roasted Jerusalem artichoke, some more of those fat and juicy barbecued mussels and a generous scoop of romesco sauce. There’s a puree beneath the fish that adds a little creamy texture and some crunchy vegetable chips scattered over the dish, along with a pile of lightly salted and crispy fried kale. Again there is nothing too fussy here, but thought has gone into the preparation of each ingredient, and into the composition of this enjoyable plate.

This has been a meal of abundance, with fresh harvests from the sea and surrounding farms, and despite its humble first impressions, it’s clear that Pearl is not your average café or kiosk. It’s the kind of place that could give destination venues like the nearby Star of Greece a run for their money, if only it had better tables.

Pearl

Boat Ramp, Aldinga Beach (just off the Lower Esplanade)
Open: Wed-Sun 9am-4pm; Fri-Sat 6pm-9pm
(08) 7477 7177
pearlaldingabeach.com.au

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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.