Wednesday, July 17, 2024

‘Elevated simplicity’ is the chef’s goal for newly opened seafood restaurant, Perla

Oysters are the center of the seafood restaurant Perla, now open in Renaissance Park, from local restaurateur Ash Aziz. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

WILMINGTON — It was six weeks before opening and local restaurateur Ash Aziz still wasn’t sold on the name of his newest eatery, a 3,500-square-foot oyster bar and seafood restaurant located in Renaissance Park near Military Cutoff Road.

READ MORE: 22 restaurants in 24 years: Ash Aziz opens Origins in Autumn Hall

A wall of glass-blown flowers from a Florida artist accent the wall over the open kitchen in Perla. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

“Raw 32 just didn’t feel right,” he said during Perla’s soft opening Thursday evening. “I liked it but it felt like I was trying to hard — and the biggest issue was, I had to explain it. And if you have to explain a name, it’s not a good name.”

It wasn’t until the space began to take shape that the name Raw 32 — the temperature at which things freeze — took a back seat. There is not a freezer in the building, as all seafood comes in fresh, daily.

Yet, Raw 32 has the air of being a rustic shack on a shoreline, where bottled beer and fresh fish is slung to beachgoers still in bathing suits and lathered in sunscreen. Perla — Spanish for pearl — is more modern, casually elegant, even.

The modern indoor-outdoor seafood restaurant is tucked away near Hudson Renaissance high-end apartment complex on Ashes Drive. Across from Mayfaire, it’s where Courtyard at Renaissance Park features multiple mixed-use offices, retail and a hotel.

“We want Perla to be more of a neighborhood restaurant,” Aziz said, “accessible and welcome so everyone feels comfortable.”

A wall of more than 50 pastel hand-blown glass flowers, each mimicking an oyster shell, were crafted by a Florida artist. Tan booths and bar stools play against the white walls and wooden table tops, with vintage designed floor tiles and deep cobalt blue subway tile peppering the outside of the glassed-in kitchen. 

An open-air bar, with a wooden kayak hanging above, has windows that swing fully ajar to lead onto an outdoor patio — soon to be outfitted with a gazebo and fire pits. Whether eating inside or out, Perla allows diners a waft of salt air from the nearby Wrightsville Beach breezes.

Diners enjoy a meal outdoors at Perla’s soft opening. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

The goal is to isolate the outdoor area by planting bamboo and other foliage around the fenced-in perimeter so it’s not immediately apparent Perla is located in a parking lot. 

“This isn’t located off a main highway and visible to everyone,” Aziz said. “But that’s what I like about it — it’s a local place and for people to seek out.”

The menu is as light as the mien of the restaurant — no Calabash seafood baskets overflowing with fries and coleslaw here.

“Don’t get me wrong, I am a North Carolina boy,” chef John Mitchell said, “and I love my fried baskets and hushpuppies.”

Aziz brought in Mitchell to steer the helm, with second-in-command sous chef John Kuespert cultivating two dozen dishes. The menu remains approachable, with handhelds — burgers, tacos — small and large plates, all meant for sharing, priced anywhere from $6 to $29.

“We didn’t want a restaurant where people were committed to a four-course meal,” Aziz said. “You can casually meet someone for a quick bite during happy hour or stay for a longer dinner with friends. I wanted to make sure our price points were affordable for a lot of people.”

Perla made its official debut to the public over the weekend. opening Friday night. It will serve dinner most days at 4 p.m. and ease its way into lunch hours and eventually weekend brunch, Aziz confirmed.

“I don’t like rushing it,” he said. “We have to continue practicing and working together as a team, and fine tune where we need to. I want to make sure the quality is there and when the pressure is on, we are ready to deliver.”

Server Scott Fairbanks was excited about his place among the Perla ranks. He said staff tasted through the menu a week ahead of opening, as to properly guide diners.

“It’s nice to work at a restaurant where the whole menu is delicious,” he said. “Some of my favorites include the tuna tartare and scallop crudo.”

Mitchell designed the crudo ($18) with an old-school Vietnamese prawn cracker in mind. He prepares a scallop cracker by blending the scallops into a paste and rolling it thin, steaming in a Ziploc, drying it, and then dehydrating it before frying it into a cracker.

“It’s like a three-day process just to create this cracker,” he said. “But it’s really fun and puffy.”

It’s served with U-10 scallops from the northeast, each sliced thinly thrice and put atop labneh, a Middle Eastern yogurt, with watermelon gazpacho (a watermelon, tomato, garlic, onion puree), sliced serranos and cucumbers, topped with basil vinaigrette and finished with lemon oil. The scallop cracker pokes from the top.

“The whole point of that scallop cracker is to provide a super rich umami,” Mitchell said.

Originally from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the chef graduated from the Art Institute of Charleston and worked at numerous eateries in the last few years, including Peninsula Grill and Charleston Grill in South Carolina, and at Cafe Marqueso in the Florida Keys.

After leaving the Keys earlier in the year, he helped a friend at a restaurant up north when he became privy to Aziz’s new concept. Mitchell has been in town for a little over a month but said the working relationship with the restaurateur has been simpatico.

“Ash basically had a mockup menu and said, ‘Make it your own,’” Mitchell recalled. 

It’s humble in its local ingredients — Mitchell gets seafood delivered daily from Blackburn Brothers in Carolina Beach and Steve’s Seafood out of Leland. He plans to change the menu according to what’s seasonal and techniques that pique his interest.

“The goal is elevated simplicity,” Mitchell added.

The oyster sampler offers two oysters each various ways: crispy, baked and raw, each topped with various accoutrements. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

Southern inspiration is at its core, as seen in one of the many ways oysters are served on a sampler tower ($22): a crispy version comes with the only fried oyster on the menu, served with country ham butter, pickled celery and Creole aioli. The baked version has a barbecued oyster floating in a gooey bite of pimento cheese, with a pickled green bean. It’s completed by the house variety, a raw oyster topped with a rosé mignonette, creme fraiche and caviar. 

Two vials accompany every order of raw oysters, including the mignonette and homemade cocktail created with freshly shaved horseradish, alongside saltines and lemons. Oysters can be ordered raw by region; during the soft opening, the bivalves were from all across the East Coast, including locally, and will change according to what’s available.

“I plan to visit local oyster farms and create a good relationship with all of them,” Mitchell said. “I’m still getting the lay of the land.”

There is also an oyster shooter ($6), prepared with yellow gazpacho, cucumber and mezcal smoky tequila.

The menu moves beyond raw bar fare. One of the larger items includes a succotash of sweet corn butter, field peas and okra, with braised pork cheeks and a plump seared flounder resting atop ($28).

A seafood stew consists of shrimp, scallop, fish, mussels, clams, and comes atop “rice grits” ($28). The creamy concoction foregoes the grain of cornmeal for rice niblings — or rice grits. These are leftover pieces of the grain that fall to the bottom when rice is milled. Mitchell works with Anson Mills out of Columbia, South Carolina, an artisanal company that processes the rice grits on Tuesdays and ships to the restaurant on Wednesdays.

“You cook them almost like you would pasta — you drain the starch off, rinse them, simmer them until they’re just al dente, take them off, dehydrate them a little bit so it forms a nice granular and doesn’t become gooey, then you just fold them into some some nice butter and serve,” he explained. “It tastes like you’re eating rice but it’s the texture of grits.”

Not all of the food at Perla is Southern; diners will also be treated to Mitchell’s love for French and Asian flavors. Yet, he’s hesitant to call it a fusion.

The swordfish dip contains blended yukon gold potatoes and gruyere, with the flaky fish throughout and chunk of artichokes. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

“I rarely mix the styles,” he said. “With fresh ingredients, simplicity is the best. But elevating that simplicity with some Asian flavors and French techniques so they’ll stand alone is what we’re doing here. In other words, you won’t see Southern with Asian — it’s one or the other.”

The tartare ($18) swims in nước chấm, a Vietnamese fish dipping sauce, served with Brussels sprouts and short-grain rice.

A swordfish dip ($15) shows off French cuisine, with the addition of blended gruyere and Yukon potatoes, and chunks of artichoke throughout to spread on to potatoes and crackers.

The menu also includes handhelds, including a shrimp burger ($23) that was a hit among diners Thursday evening, according to server Fairbanks. It also remains one of the chef’s favorites.

“It’s one of those items I worked on years ago and I never thought I’d be cooking a shrimp burger in a restaurant, but here I am,” Mitchell said.

Rather than fry shrimp and plop them between two buns or puree the shellfish to create a dense patty, Mitchell rough chops the shellfish so there are still large pieces folded into a binder of egg whites, panko bread crumbs, a generous amount of lemon juice, and Parmesan and gruyere cheeses. 

“So you’re getting really light pops of shrimp you can feel on your palate,” Mitchell said. 

The burger is smothered in a Creole remoulade and topped with a fried green tomato and lettuce, served alongside a choice of side items. Handmade, thinly sliced potato chips come tossed in salt and vinegar, while a cucumber salad is dressed with fennel and radish and mixed in the labneh.

“The ingredients speak for themselves when you have a really nice product,” Mitchell said. “You don’t have to doctor them up too much — just make some good combinations.”

He also creates desserts in house, including a homemade beignet with espresso custard and salted caramel or a light lemon tart topped with fruit; both are $7.

The Perla menu will change frequently, according to what’s seasonal and piques chef John Mitchell’s interest.(Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

The cocktail program is as calculated as the main menu. A sommelier from Aziz’s other eateries — including Origins and Circa 1922 — put together a light list to pair with light fare, such as a dry Mother Block Skin Contact white wine. It’s created like an Italian red, with grapes destemmed and co-fermented on wild yeasts, for at least six months. Unfiltered, it has flavors of lemon and lime, coconut husk and mint to pair well with seafood. 

Bubbles and reds are also prevalent, and the mixed cocktails remain fun and indicative of summertime, including frozen varieties. The Frozé containes rosé wine, vodka and strawberry syrup, while the Pearl Diver is of gold and Jamaican rum, lime, orange, gardenia and tiki bitters. 

Even bourbon gets a light twist in the Berry Bramble, prepared with Bulleit, lemon, seasonal berries and mint.

Cocktails are $14, with wines priced $10 and up; beers start at $4.

Perla opens at 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday, with hours extending to include lunch and brunch in coming months. Currently, it’s closed on Sunday.

Glass-blown flower also hang below one of the areas in the 3,500 square-foot restaurant. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)
A handmade shrimp burger and sea-salt-and-vinegar handcut potato chips.(Port City Daily/Shea Carver)
Grilled flounder is served over sweet corn butter, field pea succotash, pork cheeks and okra. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)
Cucumber and fennel salad in labdeh, a Middle Eastern yogurt, is one of the light side items offered at Perla. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)
The Berry Bramble contains Bulleit bourbon, muddled seasonal berries, lemon, seltzer and mint. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)
A lemon tart is equally as fresh an ending as raw oysters are a starter to a meal at Perla. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)
The bar at Perla has a wooden kayak hanging above indoors and windows that open to the outdoor dining area so diners can be served from the opposite side. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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