Downtown Stillwater’s Newest Dining Destination Brings Fresh Coastal Cuisine with a Side of Bourbon

Joy. It’s the end goal of Pearl & the Thief’s managing partner and co-owner Joseph Pirri, who along with chef owner Justin Sutherland and a host of minority shareholders (who include the culinary geniuses behind Lolo) opened shop in the former Pub 112 space in Stillwater to resounding aplomb.

“Everyone leaves happier than when they arrived,” Pirri says, but he’s serious. “If you’re sad when you come in, we’ll make you happy. If you’re happy, then you’ll leave happier.” This, no doubt, is thanks, at least in part, to the fresh coastal cuisine that is the staple of the menu—the oceanic influence of the Carolinas down through Louisiana—Gulf shrimp, sturgeon and top-quality oysters, where the “pearl” in the name comes from.

Sutherland plans to change the menu at least quarterly, he says, to match the exciting change the downtown Stillwater area is experiencing.

Specialties will be dictated by “you and everyone else,” Pirri says. Sutherland explains, “I wanted to fuse those techniques of classic French cooking [which he learned at Meritage three gigs back] and the happy, approachable food I grew up with,” from grandparents hailing from Georgia and the Mississippi coast.

Sutherland and Pirri—who first worked together at Handsome Hog, St. Paul’s signature barbecue joint where Sutherland still serves as executive chef—are looking to heighten the area’s seafood offerings while ensuring “whiskey with credibility,” Pirri says. As such, those familiar with the space at 112 Main St. will recognize the homey feeling the space still exudes and be impressed with the intention of the updates.

Upstairs, the large green chandelier and boardwalk mural are gone, replaced with a fresh cream paint on the woodwork and “a whiskey lounge of twinkling stars,” Pirri says, referring to the more than 30 LEDs softly lofted above the space. Downstairs, the kitchen is remodeled to accommodate the smoker and oyster bar, set up in open concept so five diners can have a front-row view of the culinary magic conducted nightly by Sutherland and sous chef Brandon Randolph, recently made famous by an appearance on Food Network’s Iron Chef America.

Meat lovers, rest at ease: Sutherland and Pirri still plan to host a rib night, brisket night and rib-eye steaks, so not everything will be vegetarian and pescatarian. Prices of a dinner entrée are in line with much of the rest of the downtown, about $17–$27, with lunch items capping out at $15. The plan is to allow half reservations, half walk-ins on weekends, Pirri says, and the goal of happy hour is to have a good value.

Behind the bar, Spencer Short ensures the quality of the aperitifs are of a premium. The whiskey is just as important as the seafood: The “thief” in the restaurant’s name is a reference to a whiskey thief, the apparatus that pulls whiskey from its aging barrel for taste testing. The cocktail program relies on staples of old fashioneds, Manhattans and sazeracs, but with 30 taps downstairs there’s no limit to the options.

One of the must-tries from the drink menu is an adaptation of Pirri’s mom’s brandy slush, now made with bourbon, black tea and two kinds of bitters alongside a ginger beer chaser. He’s planning a monthly event called “liver training,” in which he’ll welcome brand ambassadors for various distilleries to talk about the idiosyncrasies of various drinks: “What makes bourbon bourbon? What makes a rum a good rum?” he explains.

The second-floor space that used to be rented on the regular is still available—but the specifics have yet to be sorted out. This is because it’s transformed into another 20-tap whiskey bar, perfect to linger while waiting for a table or sip the night away, and Pirri anticipates it will be busy.

Perhaps one of the most heartening elements of this endeavor is the industry collaboration bringing it all together. Partners on this plan create a veritable smorgasbord of who’s who in the Valley’s restaurant industry: Shawn Smalley of Porstide, Val Leon of Acapulco Restaurante Mexicano, Joe Ehlentz of Lolo (and Taylor Miller, and Brad Nordeen, and on, and on). Now that’s something to “cheers” to. 

A summertime sipper perfect for an afternoon porch party

Culinary director turned drink master Rachael Perron of Kowalski’s Market in Oak Park Heights, Minn. believes in the value of a quality drink as we approach the longest days of the year. And since the Valley is a space for family, be sure to offer refreshing cocktails in both non-alcoholic and alcoholic varieties. Here’s a favorite, derived from the classic bevy of summertime: lemonade.

Rosemary Lemonade
Serves 4

5 cups ice-cold water, divided
1 cup sugar
1 cup fresh rosemary leaves, plus 4 small stems for garnish
1 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice
4 lemon slices

In a small saucepan, mix 2 cups water and sugar; bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer until sugar is dissolved. Add rosemary leaves; remove the mixture from the heat. Cool completely (about 1 hour). Strain into a pitcher; add 3 cups water and lemon juice. Stir well; serve over ice with a sprig of fresh rosemary and a lemon slice.

Rosemary Gin Lemonade
¼ cup gin
¼ cup rosemary lemonade (recipe above)  
½ cup tonic water or club soda
Lime or orange slices and maraschino cherries, for garnish

Stir gin and rosemary lemonade in a glass. Add tonic or club soda. Serve over ice with a lime or orange slice for your citrus, and a maraschino cherry garnish.