The North Shore community of Essex is often seen as a destination for seafood lovers, and for good reason--one of the best-known seafood shacks in New England resides in this town (Woodman's) and a very highly-rated clam shack that was once featured on the Food Network can also be found here (JT Farnham's). A number of other seafood spots--and other types of restaurants--are located in this beautiful riverside village as well, including a few lesser-known local favorites such as the wonderful CK Pearl, a dining spot that puts much of its focus on seafood, though it also offers BBQ, classic New England dishes, and more. And while Woodman's is literally across the street, many diners don't even know about this place, though those in the know who live outside of the area realize just what an undiscovered gem it is.
CK Pearl resides in a rambling structure along the little causeway on the eastern edge of Essex Center, sitting slightly above the placid Essex River and the marshlands and wetlands surrounding the water. The location and the look of the exterior give the place an initial feel of being an old-fashioned seafood shack, but the restaurant is quite different from that, with its dining area being a full-service restaurant with plenty of tables and a comfortable bar with seating by the entrance. A large outdoor deck is located off to the right and affords spectacular views, though the window seats inside also give the same views as well. Limited parking can be found out front, with a larger parking lot being across the street that happens to have much different--and equally memorable--views of the vast open space and marshlands surrounding Essex Village.
The owner of CK Pearl grew up working at Tom Shea's (also known as Shea's Riverside Restaurant and Bar) next door and the two dining spots have some similarities in the food department, though CK Pearl is perhaps a touch more modern and eclectic. A few offerings at Pearl (depending on the season and the specials offered) include an over-the-top clam chowder with fried clams sticking out of the chowder; a creamy and colorful tomato soup with house-made croutons; a very popular grilled octopus plate with parsnip puree, pickled onions, and pork belly; cheese boards and "hunter's" boards that are ever-changing; soft tacos with rare coriander-seared tuna, with the tacos getting a slight kick from chili oil added; fried haddock tacos with lots of cilantro added; an oversized haddock sandwich that is best eaten using a knife and fork; a fairly pricey lobster roll that is worth the extra money, at it is among the best ever tried for this site; tremendously flavorful chopped brisket that can either be ordered as a dinner plate or as a three-way chopped brisket sandwich with cheddar cheese, BBQ mayo, and pickled onions; and for dessert, a sinful apple crisp cheesecake that is big enough to share between two people and a skillet cookie with ice cream that is also big enough to be shared. The drink list at CK Pearl is quite impressive, including a wide variety of craft beers, an array of spirits, and a number of cocktails with a real highlight being a Bloody Mary that puts others to shame and a smooth-tasting Negroni made with rhubarb bitters. Prices for food and drink are mostly reasonable, with the range for meals being rather wide since the place offers everything from basic sandwiches to steak and lobster dinners.
Like Essex itself, CK Pearl has the feel of a true hidden gem, and it is a great alternative to the more popular spots such as Woodman's, Farnham's, and The Clam Box which is a few miles up the road in Ipswich. Plus, unlike some of the other dining spots nearby, CK Pearl is open year around, so if you are looking for some tasty seafood or New England fare on a cold winter day, this may be one of your best (and relatively few) choices in the area.
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