In a race to get one last unobstructed look at the white beaches before Memorial Day, my family and I drove to FoWal mere days before the holiday weekend. We ate an early dinner at The Black Pearl Island Grill, one of several businesses and dining establishments fronting the Gulf at the Boardwalk on Okaloosa Island. It was the last day of kindergarten for my daughter Grace (the Tiny Diner), and she was ready to party like a six year old.
Black Pearl is inside the Boardwalk building, a short flight of stairs up. The restaurant is basically a rectangle, with a bar to the immediate right of the entrance, an inside dining room, and an open-air dining area with spacious frame windows looking onto the beach (with the fishing pier off to the right). There are awnings in case it rains or the wind kicks up. The night we ate there it was brisk enough not to need air conditioning, and TD could call out to passersby. Like I said, teacher had let the monkeys out.
The interior is wood-paneled, with a blue, brick red and blond wood color scheme. The walls are decorated with marine life and photos of coastal days gone by. There’s an overhead fan system that looks like lazily moving hand-held palm fans (instead of propellers), and there are oars and other nautical knickknacks hung here and there.
We had two servers, a trainee and a trainer. They brought menus, got the drink orders, brought two hot loaves of bread with an olive oil, herb and vinegar dip, and left us to decide.
My wife ordered a pina colada (I was designated driver), and Grace was delighted when her order of orange juice on the rocks came out from the bar.
Black Pearl features some reduced-price Sunset Specials from 4 to 6 p.m., with entrees from $9.99 up to $16.49, ranging from a mixed fish and seafood platter to filet medallions. We decided to go for the main menu.
The restaurant offers starters, salads and soups, chicken and pork, po’ boys, combo platters, Premium beef, and a long list of fish and shellfish main courses.
We opened with blackened grouper cheeks, served atop mounds of black-eyed peas and a spicy aioli. There were three cheeks, each about the size of a generous medallion of pork, with a firm, flavorful bite. The peas had a sweet, earthy taste, kicked up by the aioli.
Other apps included shrimp bruschetta, conch fritters, fried cheese triangles, fried calamari, bacon-wrapped scallops, mushrooms stuffed with crab and goat cheese, spicy tuna roll, coconut grouper and shrimp ceviche, salads and vegetarian black bean soup.
TD got crazy and ordered a hamburger (what can I say?). I had my eye on the Caribbean jerk-rubbed ahi tuna seared rare with spinach and new potatoes, and my wife stayed with her evening’s theme, choosing grouper en pappillote (moist-cooked in parchment) with crab and shrimp, grilled vegetables and coconut rice.
Thick chunks of rare tuna with a spicy rub are next to godliness, and the soy-pineapple reduction worked with both the fish and the tender spinach and potatoes. It was simple and satisfying. The parchment-baked grouper, crab and shrimp were succulent and the vegetables well caramelized. About my only criticism was that the coconut sauce served with the rice was too thick to pour.
Other menu choices included Gulf shrimp served fried, grilled or jerk-style, shrimp or grouper po’ boys, shrimp and grits, sirloin, filet, ribeye, or braised beef short ribs, mojo pork chop, fried chicken, chicken piccata, chipotle chicken pasta, Dungeness crab, gulf snapper, lobster mac and cheese, chicken fried snapper, scallops St. Croix (blackened with bacon marmalade), Maine lobster, Caribbean pistachio-crusted white fish, and fried, broiled or steamed seafood platters and surf-and-turf combos.
It was just TD and I for dessert. We chose a rich but fluffy chocolate bread pudding with whipped cream. She dropped out after a few bites, and I polished off the rest. Other desserts that night were creme brulee and key lime pie.
Our trainee server did a fine job that night, handling teasing from a French diner at another table about not having tasted the wine the man had ordered (the kid was 20, and obeying the law), and rescuing another diner who didn’t know what “balsamic” was.
By the time we left, the crowds were thickening, and folks were coming in off the beach for a drink and a bite on the Boardwalk. Those who chose the Black Pearl did the right thing.