Michele Ragussis has the keys to The Pearl. The executive chef of the fine dining restaurant on Rockland Harbor assumes ownership next week with plans to shake up the midcoast dining scene this summer.
“This year we are going crazy: Sunday brunch, live music, invite that bar crowd, sell food till midnight,” said Ragussis, a lively, spiky haired chef who appears regularly on the Food Network.
The location on a jutting pier is prime for growth, which she plans to accomplish by capturing an underserved late-night and happy hour crowd.
“There is so much call for nightlife, but people have nowhere to go. In the middle of the [North Atlantic] Blues Festival, the Lobster Festival, they want to go somewhere. They want a beautiful restaurant,” she said.
Ragussis is partnering with her sous chef Anthony Coyle in a rent-to-own arrangement with The Pearl owner James Fanning. The Pearl is starting its fifth summer, but the restaurant was not achieving full potential, closing at 9 p.m. in the height of the season. Fanning approached Ragussis over the winter and asked if she wanted to take a shot.
“We are going to really shake things up in Rockland and utilize the ocean side. We want to cater to everyone,” Ragussis said. “Who wouldn’t want to eat oysters and sit on the water? We will have lobster ravioli, lobster mac and cheese — lobster is the main thing,” she said.
The seasonal restaurant, which opens June 3, is letting its hair down. Late-night dining seven nights a week means tourists and night owls can fuel up at will. Instead of closing midday after lunch, a happy hour with new signature cocktails and a bar menu with gourmet bites like lobster wontons capitalizes on the grazing-all-day trend of the moment.
Also new this year is front-of-house manager Elaine Childers from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and a switch in the kitchen. Instead of creating menus and expediting entrees, Ragussis will step behind the line.
“This summer, Michele is taking over. I want to really do it right and come out with a bang.”
Though the vibe will be more casual, fine dining is not going away.
“We have a wood oven for wood-roasted seafood and meats, wood-roasted clams and oysters,” she said.
If things go well this summer, Ragussis and Coyle say they likely will purchase the 190-seat restaurant.
“We have 100 days to bang it out. It’s a four-month season. Want to make everyone excited,” Ragussis said.
The Food Network Star will hold viewing parties of her upcoming TV appearances. She will debut on the new NBC show “Food Fighters” July 22. And as she has in the past, Ragussis will prepare dishes from her shows at The Pearl when episodes air.
This week, she flies to New York to tape another show, which she declined to name.
Her witty telegenic persona has made The Pearl a midcoast destination.
“It’s really changed my world. I’ve had people fly in from Texas to try my food,” said
the Connecticut native, who learned to cook at Johnson and Wales University.
But she is not stopping there. This summer Ragussis launches a line of gourmet butter. Chef Michele’s Finishing Butter, in flavors such as Mediterranean, will be available at The Pearl for purchase.
Despite her success, she plans to keep the retooled Pearl community centered.
“I want to make everything, have everything, we want to cater to everyone. If you want to come in and have a burger then that’s OK, too. We want locals, not just tourists.”
Fundraisers for Make-A-Wish Foundation and a rotating roster of local musical acts are planned.
“We will have great live music, blues bands, a steel drum Sunday brunch,” Ragussis said. “It’s going to be the place to be in Rockland.”