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DINING: At 86th and Ditch, a revamped pearl among bistros

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Dining - A&E

Tucked away behind Half-Price Books and Donato’s Pizza in the space formerly occupied by Russia House, Pearl Bistro (1475 W. 86th St., 876-7990) has quietly earned a reputation in its first year as more than just another spot for ladies-who-lunch. Stressing locally grown produce, healthier oils and seasonal menu changes, its lunchtime vibe is casual and welcoming.

I’ll admit that the Kenny G music that greeted us upon entry (and played throughout our late-afternoon meal), led me to expect food more inoffensively bland. But my companion and I were pleasantly and repeatedly surprised by a menu that started with Shrimp and Grits ($8).

To be honest, it isn’t pretty. The three sizable shrimp encased like King Arthur’s sword in a lump of earth-toned, gravy-enhanced Wiesenberger grits isn’t likely to grace a magazine cover anytime soon. But the tastes partnered well together, providing a hearty Louisiana-influenced start.

Pearl Bistro offers a selection of sandwiches, including burgers, and salads for lunch. Or you can pick both from a slightly more limited menu—or pair either with a soup—as an $8.50 lunch special. That’s where we headed. The hamburger soup was somber-looking but substantial. Its partner, the Hawaiian Beef Sandwich, was more to our liking. Grilled slices of marinated New York strip steak were topped with pineapple, roasted red pepper and red onion chutney in a must-fork combo.

The Bistro Melt was equally pleasing, presenting sautéed spinach, roasted red peppers, roasted pablanos, tomato, red onion and both provolone and cheddar cheese on a ciabatta roll (I have to admit, though, that the ciabatta still hasn’t won me over, here or elsewhere). We paired it with a House Salad, accented nicely with sweet and spicy nuts.

No time for dessert, we thought.

But we reversed that decision quickly when we heard about the house-made Key Lime Pie. Subtler than most, it sent us off with a nicely tart taste to continue what was left of the work day.•

—Lou Harry

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Third in a month-long series of 86th and Ditch dining reviews.

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