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
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.
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.
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 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).
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.
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.