April 17, 2024

Florida Life - Dining

Dining in the Boonies

'Pearl in the Grove' is destination dining in the tiny town of St. Joseph, near Tampa, Florida.

Chris Sherman | 7/13/2011

Pearl in the Grove
31936 Saint Joe Road, St. Joseph

Pearl in the Grove
The restaurant, in a cinderblock house, was once a kumquat souvenir shop and features whitewash walls and concrete floors. [Photo: Stephen J. Coddington/St. Petersburg Times]

Curtis Beebe has reversed the current farm-to-fork trend: He's taken the fork — knives, spoons, wine glasses and pasta-making tools — to the farm.
Technically, he took them to the grove, for tiny St. Joseph, 40 miles from Tampa, has been planted almost entirely in kumquat trees for almost a century and is now the largest U.S. producer of the sweet little Japanese fruit.

Getting to Pearl in the Grove is a journey for city folks, and a long trip for Beebe career-wise. He spent an entrepreneurial life in IT before moving from Tampa to eastern Pasco County more than a decade ago. His love of food and country living led him to embrace the dream of local eating.

Pearl is a case study in the effort and rewards of brave new restauranting for a generation of diners beginning to see the connection between farming and food. It's a challenge in a state where hot weather, big farms and big crops cater to the winter market more than city-slick gourmets.

Beebe took over the kitchen and dining hall of the village's Catholic church last fall for a series of trial dinners. Then he and wife Rebecca took over one of the only commercial spaces at the crossroads, an old cinder block house that was once a kumquat souvenir shop.

The outside is modest; the interior is as hip and artful as a New York loft, with whitewashed walls and concrete floors.

Dining tastes of the country. The local accent includes kumquat in the vinaigrette. There's a clever crop of fresh vegetables on every plate, crisp squash, julienned okra and, like 'em or not, bright purple beets, from Magnolia Farms, a young market farm down the road.

Beebe has steak, too, and is searching for more local sources for other meat and poultry. He's also got from-scratch ravioli, fresh-baked bread and double-dark chocolate cake from a new artisan baker in nearby Dade City.

It's a short menu of uptown country cooking with a dash of Southern and Cajun. Don't miss fried catfish beignets and smoked tomato grits — or gulf shrimp.

Despite its remote location and limited service (dinner Wednesday to Saturday and Sunday brunch), Pearl in the Grove draws a crowd, so much so that reservations are a must.

To go with dinner, Rebecca has assembled an affordable wine list. Wine and white tablecloths are new treats for St. Joseph, but country vegetables at their freshest deserve parlor manners.

Fried beignets of catfish
Fried beignets of catfish with smoked tomato grit cake. [Photo: Stephen J. Coddington]

Tags: Dining & Travel, Tampa Bay

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