What’s on the menu at the Pearl, a new cottage-country market and snack bar in Muskoka

What’s on the menu at the Pearl, a new cottage-country market and snack bar in Muskoka

It’s just down the street from the Kee to Bala

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Name: The Pearl
Contact: 3047 Muskoka Rd. 169, Bala, thepearlmuskoka.ca, @thepearlmuskoka
Neighbourhood: Bala, Muskoka
Previously: Castle Blue
Owners: Elana Kochman, Toben Kochman and Ryan Feldman
Chef: Michel Swanson
Accessibility: Fully accessible
On an idyllic, sun-drenched June afternoon, Muskoka cottagers and locals donned their best sun hats, loafers and chinos for an opening bash at the Pearl, a new market and snack bar in Bala by Toronto’s Toben Hospitality Group. Between the live music, the open bar and the relentless rotation of snacks previewing the market’s multitudinous offerings—a perfect seafood roll, an oyster mushroom sabich, a zingy beet salad and soft-serve gelato—it felt like a backyard party at a (fancy) cottage.

For Toben Hospitality, it was a warm, triumphant welcome to cottage country. Founded in 2005 by siblings Toben and Elana Kochman, it’s both a catering company and a thriving delivery service. In 2018, they expanded into Grace, a gorgeous 15,000-square-foot events venue in the Stockyards, which also houses their commissary kitchen. The Pearl is Toben’s first brick-and-mortar foray outside of the city.

Elana and Toben Kochman

The new spot was largely inspired by how popular the duo was with the cottage crowd—for nearly a decade, folks heading north would regularly pick up care packages to fill their cottage fridges. The gig helped keep the company busy through the summers, when corporate events generally die down. But, when people started making permanent moves to cottage country during the pandemic, a stand-alone Muskoka location started to look like a viable opportunity.

Related: Inside Freebird, a swanky new market in Etobicoke for house-made pizza, pasta, pastries and groceries

It took more than a year of construction—which included turning three shipping containers into a kitchen—to get going. The result is an upscale-yet-relaxed all-day destination. During the day, the Pearl is part takeaway market, part dine-in lunch spot. In the evening, it turns into a snack bar, complete with craft cocktails and lots of shareable options.

The food

The theme here is elevated casual. Chef Michel Swanson has a penchant for bright flavours and nutritious takes on familiar favourites—when he makes a chicken schnitzel sandwich, he adds pickled cabbage and zingy zhug to lighten it up. Likewise, his meatballs—which are no less satisfying for being made with chicken and ricotta in lieu of the usual pork—are smothered in a perfect house-made red sauce. His menu covers all the bases: salads, sandwiches, sides, pasta, pizza, dessert and even a solid house bread program. It may sound like a lot for a small space, but it’s a weekly rotating selection, with around 20 items available at any given time (rounded out with a retail section of snacks and fancy pantry staples).

Inspired by stalagmites—those surreal mineral deposits that rise from cave floors—these flaky, buttery croissants get a brush of vanilla glaze and a sprinkle of pistachio when they come out of the oven. Thanks to the shape, they rip apart into neat chunks, should anyone inexplicably be inclined to share. $5


The Pearl
To prep the beets for this salad, Swanson steams them until they’re tender and puts them straight into a vinegar bath flavoured with coriander, thyme and black pepper. The sweet-and-sour ruby beauties are then topped with a hit of nutty dukkah, Bulgarian-style sheep’s milk feta and candied walnuts. It’s all finished with watercress, mint and shaved candy cane beets, which are a tad sweeter than their earthy counterparts. Customers can opt to add sherry vinaigrette, but the salad is delicious on its own. $12


Potato salad minus the gloopy mayo? This version will make believers out of Hellman’s devotees. Fingerling potatoes are tossed with Ontario corn, herbs, pickled jalapenos, double crunch mustard and a bright, zingy sherry vinaigrette. $8


This dish was inspired by Toben’s time collaborating with chef Susur Lee. Among the 18 ingredients in the Pearl’s Shanghai Slaw are crispy rice noodles, carrot, cabbage, tomato, daikon, mint, cilantro, Thai basil, sesame seeds, crispy shallots and peanuts—all brought together with a fermented plum-ume dressing with pickled beets. Bright, crunchy and different with every bite, this dish is more than the sum of its parts (which is saying a lot given the number of parts). $12


Here we have the wild mushroom yakisoba salad. Buckwheat noodles, served cold, are laced with maitake and oyster mushrooms, pickled ginger, nutty Jerusalem artichokes, cabbage, carrot, and scallion. Togarashi and furikake give it a welcome hit of spice and umami. There’s a lot going on here, but it’s all held in perfect balance for a super satisfying bite. $12


For this sweet potato “steak,” the potato gets an overnight salt brine so it’s seasoned all the way through. Then it’s slow-roasted and caramelized with a combination of spices (like smoked paprika, cumin and ground coriander) and topped with a punchy salsa macha of sesame, ancho chilies and garlic. It’s served cold and topped with a refreshing lime crema and peanuts (or soy nuts, if you’re allergic) for an uncompromising vegetarian main. $10


Here we have the short-rib grilled cheese. The ribs are glazed in red wine and sandwiched on sourdough with caramelized onion and a blend of Gruyère, aged cheddar and mozzarella, then finished with a sweet, complex smoked tomato jam. $15


Speaking of ribs, here are some gorgeous pork ribs glazed with a house barbecue sauce. $24 for a half-rack


The base of these meatballs is lean hand-ground chicken, but they’re still plenty moist thanks to a panade (a mixture of bread and milk) and a lotta ricotta. A little lemon juice and zest keep things bright, and they’re served in a house red sauce—a mix of imported Italian tomatoes, aromatics and a bit of basil. Satisfying yet light, these may be healthy-ish meatballs, but they do the traditional version justice. $10 for three


This is a six-layer, three-cheese (fior de late, mozzarella, grana padano) lasagna complete with bolognese, spinach and house-made egg noodles. Imported Italian tomatoes make for an extra flavourful sauce, and the top gets nice and crispy for that coveted grilled cheese effect. $14
The drinks

At the counter, you’ll find espresso-based drinks and a selection of teas from Genuine Tea. There’s also a grab-and-go beverage fridge with local soft drinks, brews and juices from Greenhouse Juice Company. And at night, the snack bar plays host to a wine and beer program with a strong local focus as well as a fun craft cocktail menu, which includes a delightfully sparkling paper plane.

From left to right: the Pachuco Sparkling Paloma is a tequila-based refresher made with fermented mango tepache, bubbly prosecco, orange simple syrup and grapefruit juice, finished with ancho chili Maldon salt ($16); the Pearl Affogato, which is arguably the best way to caffeinate on a hot day, is salted caramel soft-serve gelato topped with Lavazza Gusto espresso ($8); and the Cherry Almond Manhattan, a summery take on the classic cocktail, is made with bourbon, Amaretto di Saschira, crème de cacao and dry vermouth, finished with an Amarena cherry, orange and sea salt ($18)
The space

Befitting the locale, the compact market looks like a charming mini cottage with its white lap siding, big side window and plenty of greenery around the perimeter. Between picnic tables and cozy two- and four-tops, there are about 50 seats outside, open for daytime munching and late-night lounging. The Pearl leans in part on Toben’s Toronto commissary kitchen, but much of the work is done on site, in an efficiently laid-out kitchen housed in three black shipping containers.

Chef Michel Swanson