It’s no overstatement to say that, 20 years ago, Rebecca Charles single-handedly changed the way New Yorkers think about seafood. Her first restaurant, Pearl Oyster Bar, opened in 1997: a tiny, tiled space in the West Village neighborhood of Manhattan that quickly earned the attention of critics. Indeed, more than a decade ago, it was one of the first restaurants I ever reviewed.

Charles’ polished approach to casual, seafood-shack eating became so popular that patrons lined up down Cornelia Street just to snag a table. And the lines didn’t disappear after a few weeks – they persisted for years.

It wasn’t long before Charles’ employees and partners took notice and, one by one, brazenly decamped to open nearly identical, mitotic copies of Pearl, sometimes just blocks away. Their imitation was so flagrant that Charles even sued her former longtime sous chef for stealing intellectual property: everything from her English muffin croutons, right down to the color of the wainscoting on the walls. He settled out-of-court and changed his concept … almost imperceptibly.

But it is a testament to Charles’ original brilliant idea that Pearl Oyster Bar (and every one of its clones) is still in business to this day. New Yorkers, it turns out, adore the idea of casual, shore-style dining. Charles hopes southern Maine, where her family has been coming for a century, does too.

Clearly, Pearl Kennebunk Beach faces more of an uphill battle with Mainers. After all, we are no strangers to seafood shacks. So Charles has adapted her original template, building the new version of Pearl into an expansive, lodge-like space, with a huge working fireplace and walls painted in muted neutrals. At the center of the dining room is a big-boned, unpainted wood table that seats 16 people – a quarter of the capacity of her entire New York restaurant.

The differences don’t stop there. On the menu at Pearl Kennebunk, you’ll find more non-seafood dishes than you might expect from a Rebecca Charles restaurant. For her, though, it’s not a shift as much as an opportunity to showcase dishes she has always loved. “For the last 20 years, I’ve been cooking pretty much only seafood in the restaurant, so I asked myself what I would want to eat, what I cook for myself,” she said.

One of dishes she makes at home every week is pounded, pan-fried chicken breast ($25), a cross between a schnitzel and a paillard, first dredged in egg and coated in panko breadcrumbs before being shallow-fried “in clarified butter, for an extra kick of butter flavor,” Charles explained. Seasoned with pepper and salt, the crispy chicken remains remarkably juicy. Its accompaniment, a generous dollop of classic French-style celery remoulade (also available a la carte for $7) – a slaw of mandoline-grated celeriac, mayonnaise, red onion and chopped cornichons – is just as wonderful.

The whole dish is also served with a lemon wedge, which it absolutely requires. Normally, I think the kitchen should complete all seasoning before serving a dish, but in this case, leaving the squeezing to the diner makes sense; it keeps the cutlet hot and its crust crunchy. But servers really ought to alert you that the lemon isn’t optional. Ours did not.

Mel Butman, left, and Jami-Lee Nelson chat near the fireplace at Pearl in Kennebunk on Thursday. Butman is a regular customer and Nelson is the general manager of the restaurant. Staff Photo by Gregory Rec

He had a few problems that night, actually. One emerged when he warned us about a cocktail we had ordered. “We usually serve the sidecar ($13) hot.” “What? Really?!” my dinner guest asked, incredulous. I too had never heard of a warm cognac-and-citrus drink that, paradoxically, required shaking over ice. “Oh, sorry. That’s cider, not sidecar!” our server said.

I tried to steer away from inappropriately hot booze by requesting a glass of Aichenberg Gruner Veltliner ($11), and was instead served an un-named glass of red wine. I suspect it was the more-expensive Argyle pinot noir ($14), which the server took away with a huff, muttering “Gruner Veltliner” as he made his way back to the bar.

I was after something bright and bone dry I could sip as I worked my way through a fall harvest salad ($13) dotted with candied, spiced pecans and blue cheese, and more importantly, a tangled nest of Charles’ shoestring potatoes ($7), one of her signature dishes. Made from matchsticks of Idaho russets deep-fried just long enough to turn their exteriors golden and a little brittle, they are instantaneously habit-forming. “We do get some people who complain online that they poke you, or that they’re hard to eat. But that only happens if you’re trying to shove 50 at a time into your mouth. If you eat a few at a time, taking human-sized bites, they’re great,” she said. “They are simple French bistro food, and of any cuisine, that’s my most favorite.”

Pan-fried chicken with celery root slaw and watercress greens. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

So much so that Charles apparently almost never made it to New York 40 years ago. Instead, she came very close to opening a French bistro on Commercial Street in Portland “way back before things changed,” she said. And when those plans sputtered out, she headed south, taking inspiration from Maine along with her.

One glance at the Kennebunk menu shows that France persists as one of her culinary muses. Here you’ll find another Pearl signature, bouillabaisse ($28) served piled into shallow, oval-shaped Hall bowls that stack together neatly on the pass, enormous mussel shells clacking together as the bowls bump.

Charles’ bouillabaisse is unusual: light on broth and mostly focused on seafood like pan-fried cod, clams, shrimp and half a lobster tail. While I found the rickety inverted pyramid of seafood hard to manage without moving components – like a baguette crouton dabbed with garlicky, saffron-perfumed aioli – to other plates, the effort was well worth it. After all, it allowed me unrestricted access to the concentrated, oniony soup beneath.

In other dishes, playing with scale works better still. Take the flattened scoop of Sweetcream Dairy vanilla bean ice cream, as large as an Arctic ice floe, melting into a dome over the tart-sweet, dried-cherry apple crisp ($9). Or the gargantuan Italian-sausage-stuffed quahog ($5 apiece) that dwarfs the lemon wedge next to it. “Baked clams are like crawfish; you have to eat 40 of them before you even feel like you’ve gotten anything. So I put them in big shells and serve one or two as a bar snack or appetizer,” Charles explained.

The oversized stuffed clams are phenomenally tasty and feel particularly well-suited to the Maine outpost of Pearl. It is the sort of dish that makes perfect sense only when you eat it in a cavernous dining room.

Although Charles remains actively involved with her Manhattan restaurant, I suspect the hulking stuffed quahog won’t ever migrate to the menu there. These days, Charles is a full-time Mainer, having sold her New York home two months ago, in part to ensure that Pearl Kennebunk Beach was sufficiently capitalized throughout the winter off-season. Nevermind that she taught the nation’s biggest city how to eat lobster rolls. When Rebecca Charles goes back to New York City now, she has to sleep in a hotel.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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