When The Cultured Pearl Restaurant opened in 1993, many coastal-area diners were skittish about sushi. “Everyone thought it was bait,” says Susan Townley Wood, who opened the Rehoboth Beach restaurant partly to satisfy her own sushi craving. “We’ve come a long way in 26 years.”
The evolution will be evident on Saturday, March 16, when The Cultured Pearl hosts the Third Annual Rehoboth Beach Cherry Blossom Beach Fest.
To open the festival, The Shops at The Pearl Mall—the restaurant’s home—will have an indoor fair featuring Japanese street foods like takoyaki, little round balls filled with octopus; taiyake, a fish-shaped cake; yakimo, small baked sweet potatoes; and tsukune, seasoned chicken meatballs on a stick.
The festival honors Delaware’s sister state, the Miyagi Prefecture in Japan, and coincides with the week-long Japanese student exchange programs between Cape Henlopen High School, Dover High School, Dover Middle School, Sendai-Nika High School, Kakuda Senior High School and Iwanuma City Middle School.
We talked to the restaurant’s owners Susan and Rob Woods about the festival and The Cultured Pearl’s longevity at the beach. (The answers below have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.)
Susan: People definitely understand sushi now. The more people who are exposed to it, the better. That’s a pro. The con is when first-timers don’t have topnotch sushi and get a bad taste in their mouths. To keep fish fresh, you need to sell out of it each day. People are getting used to the frozen block tuna [tuna is frozen, cut into blocks, packaged and sold] that so many sushi bars are using. We’ve had people tell us our fish is too red or dark. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.
Rob: The texture and flavor of frozen blocks of fish are completely different. There are places that sell sushi that do not have a master chef. I once hired a chef from another sushi bar who had never cleaned a fish, cut whole salmon or broken down a tuna loin. That’s more common than you would hope.
Susan: It was prompted by the 20-year anniversary of the sister relationship between the state of Delaware and the Miyagi Prefecture in Japan. This is the area of Japan that was hit by the tsunami in 2011. The Japanese don’t like to take help. Their idea of getting help is to bring their products to Delaware and get them to major distributors. We agreed to use some of miso, some of the noodle products and some of their sake. The high schools, meanwhile, have a Japanese student exchange program. Cape Henlopen High School just started doing it.
The students have to do a cultural presentation, which they did in a library. I said, “We should make this something special.” The Japanese students come here and do origami, calligraphy, tea ceremony, crafts and games — that’s free. We decided to sell street foods that aren’t normally on our menu.
Susan: At 3 p.m. on March 16 there is a cosplay fashion contest. We’re really promoting the anime. Then we do karaoke, and the Japanese kids all get up and sing. It’s really pretty cool.
Susan: When you go to Japan, you see people dressed like video game and comic characters. If you go out in certain areas in Tokyo on a Saturday night, you will see people dressed in cosplay [short for costume play].
Rob: It’s like going to a comic book show in the United States. People dress up like Superman, Batman. In Japan, it’s over the top in terms of colors, style and outlandishness.
Susan: We extended the festival to coincide with Washington, D.C.’s cherry blossom season. On March 24, we have a painting class with Maiko Saleff, one of our employees. On March 31, we have a sushi-making class, and on March 31, there’s a paint night of a Japanese painting. The last Sunday, April 7, is a sake-tasting with a sake sommelier.
Rob: The sake-tasting, the sushi-making and the painting all have limited seating. People have a lot of fun and great food. No one leaves The Cultured Pearl hungry. It’s about food, fun and facts.
301 Rehoboth Ave., Rehoboth Beach • 227-8493