About halfway through a plate of jambalaya at Pearl's Southern Comfort, it occurred to me that I'd never given much thought to the distinction between Cajun and creole cuisines. In fact, I've probably used the terms interchangeably, which makes me a terrible southerner. (Well, that and defecting to Chicago.)
Cajun culture was born of Canadians who relocated to the swampy French colony when in the mid-18th century the British forced them out of Acadia, a region that consisted of parts of Quebec, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island ("Cajun" derives from "les Acadians"). The original Creole people, on the other hand, were first-generation Louisianans who descended from European settlers and, later, freed slaves and people of mixed race. The urban aristocracy was largely Creole.
And to vastly oversimplify the distinctions between the two cultures' cuisines: creole food has tomatoes, Cajun food typically doesn't. The creole jambalaya at Pearl's is a good illustration of the difference. Some recipes for creole jambalaya call for tomato juice and diced tomatoes, others for diced tomatoes alone. In the version served at Pearl's, bits of andouille, chicken, and shrimp are doused in what's basically a tomato sauce, spicy and acidic, not unlike a loose arrabbiata. This preparation probably isn't for everyone—I prefer it the Cajun way—but it's indicative of the kitchen's appreciation for the nuances of the region's food.
Pearl's is the brainchild of Danny Beck, owner of the Lakeview sports bar Toons, and his wife, Annie, a pastry chef who formerly operated the now-defunct Sunflour Bakery. Like Luella's Southern Kitchen, the more broadly regional restaurant that opened earlier this year in Lincoln Square, the new Edgewater eatery is named after a grandma, specifically Danny's. The bespectacled senior looks out onto the cheery dining room from a framed photo on the south wall, directly across from a well-appointed bar that serves Hurricanes, Sazeracs, and some curious originals.
The Becks were already serving Louisiana-style dishes at Toons, which is known for having better fare than the average fried-food feed trough—there are po' boys on the menu along with nachos and mozzarella sticks. But chef de cuisine Dan Finelli, with the help of consultant Jonathan Zaragoza—formerly of Masa Azul and his family's restaurant, Birrieria Zaragoza—has expanded the po'boy repertoire to include cochon de lait and fried shrimp. Unless you have a maw of Martha Raye proportions, eating either sandwich as you'd typically eat a sandwich presents a challenge. In the former, moist smoked and shredded suckling pig is piled high between a bisected baguette, and then a layer of creamy, celery-seed-rich slaw is heaped on for good measure. With some effort, it's possible to clamp your jaws around the behemoth.
The shrimp po'boy? Forget about it—not that I'm complaining. Crunchy cornmeal-breaded crustaceans spill out onto the plate and even the floor if you aren't vigilant—I lost at least one to carelessness. The sandwich was a little light on remoulade, but it would be a shame to sacrifice any of the shrimp's simple sweetness to a horseradish bite. The barbecue preparation, on the other hand, is the perfect complement; the sauce in which the sea creatures swim is buttery, peppered, and has a distinct taste of thyme—good enough to sop up every last drop with a slice of French bread.
Seafood-wise, the kitchen also knows its way around a substantial catfish fillet. The blackened flesh is moist and fresh tasting, and the collards that accompany it are as good as any I've had in the south. They didn't bring pepper vinegar to the table to douse them with, but I also didn't feel the need to ask for any.
Other southern staples you might expect the kitchen to nail are middling. The mud-colored gumbo is a muddled mess of flavors, none of the ingredients distinguishable from the others. Pieces of andouille seem to have been sapped of flavor by the rest of the melange, and medallions of okra are too tough and stringy to chew, an indication the pods were allowed to grow too long before being picked. Unfortunately, that represents the underrated vegetable's only appearance on the menu. And although an entire section is devoted to barbecue—a half chicken, pork shoulder, ribs—what emerges from the smoker lacks character. A three-bone rib sampler that's included with the appetizers is served presauced, and if I've learned anything from my colleague Mike Sula, it's that presaucing is usually a bad sign. That rule held true in this case; it seemed like the ribs had been little more than kissed by wood smoke.
But don't let the lackluster ribs deter you from sampling other starters, two of which are Pearl's best items. The pimento cheese is impossibly creamy but still has some heat. The sinful spread is served with bread splattered with a citrusy green herb puree—it looks like an accident but its brightness successfully offsets some of the cheese's richness. The boudin balls are also worth the caloric splurge. Served hotter than hellfire, the bread-crumb-coated orbs of sausage and rice are crackly outside, luscious inside, and have a subtle organ-meat funk. They flirt with blandness in the way only the best comfort food does.
For dessert, peach cobbler served with whipped cream has a surprising amaretto-like flavor that deepens the taste of the tart fruit. Similarly, the Hurricane packs an extra fruity punch, likely from one bartender's heavy hand with the passion-fruit syrup. The Animal Instinct, a concoction of bacon-infused whiskey, raspberry, and molasses syrup tastes vaguely like a wet frying pan smells after breakfast. If you like whiskey, stick with the Sazerac.
As southern food continues to take over this Yankee town, Pearl's has emerged as another worthwhile place to sate a craving for the region's cuisine, sure, but also to indulge a collective longing for perpetual warmth, trees draped with Spanish moss, and the year-round hum of cicadas. Winter looms, but Pearl's is an escape. vCorrection note: This article has been amended to reflect that Dan Finelli is chef de cuisine and Jonathan Zaragoza is consulting.