Pêche Seafood Grill
800 Magazine St.
Four Stars (Out Of Four) ________________________________________________________________________
Peche Seafood Grill is the latest from chef Donald Link and his team. The concept here brings outdoor, open-fire cooking traditions to an indoor restaurant where fish essentially get the same nose-to-tail, whole-animal treatment that Link has employed to such acclaim at his nearby restaurant Cochon. Ryan Prewitt leads the kitchen at Pêche, and together he, Stephen Stryjewski and Link all run the restaurant together.
Peche is a big, bustling, loud, casual place built in what had long been a forgotten corner of the Warehouse District. The design mixes a vintage rusticity, with huge exposed beams, weather brick and bare wood tables, with contemporary style, from the light fixtures to the cool, marble bar tops. There are three distinct areas: the big bar, the long main dining room of booths and large tables and a raw bar in back by the open kitchen. The bar is large, attractive and develops its own scene, though the best place for solo diners is the raw bar at the opposite end of the restaurant. Not only do you have direct access to the oyster shucker, you can take in the de facto floorshow of chefs assembling raw fish dishes and the action in the open kitchen.
Upbeat, knowledgeable and tuned to the peculiarities of this menu and approach, the staff do a fine job tableside. The only issue is that with so much going on across this big place they sometimes get lost.
I can’t eat here without at least considering the raw bar specials of the day. Beyond the fresh oysters, Peche always prepares a few different renditions of raw fish, usually in the manner of Italian crudo. The format changes, but various combinations of oils, herbs, thin-sliced vegetables, even fruit and nuts promise interesting choices. From there, a good part of the menu if devoted to “snacks” and small plates, the line between the two not being all that rigid. I like the tuna dip as a good, simple, shared starter, along with shrimp toast (like the Chinese restaurant variety) and the fried bread, which is a little like savory beignets. Fish sticks aren’t your freezer variety but fresh chunks of catfish fried in a nutty, puffy, beer-based batter, while grilled mussels taste like the more familiar steamed ones, albeit a little smokier. I found the fried catfish gets too soggy in a potlikker broth, but the spicy ground shrimp with noodles is an intriguing, Szechuan-style option.
The big thing at Peche is a big fish – served whole, dressed for the day with a changing wardrobe of herbs and vegetables and sauces and seasonings but most of all allowed to express the deep flavor of fish cooked with bones, skin and oil intact over a wood fire. The precise selection changes daily but will range from the fairly familiar – pompano and redfish – to somewhat more exotic models. Some can make individual servings, but the best way to eat here is to share a big fish around the table along with a slew of starters and sides. There are more conventional fish dinners, like baked drum with ginger and tomato or a thick-cut tuna steak cooked over the grill. I liked what the kitchen did recently with its wahoo, a meaty but mild cut dressed with a light vinaigrette over field peas and topped with fried arugula. There are steak and chicken dishes apart from the seafood. The $60 price tag on the ribeye is initially eye-popping, but unless you’re up for dispatching your own 22 oz. steak this is another dish intended to be shared.
Desserts may sound simple, but the pies, cakes and tarts really shine. Sit at the raw bar, which doubles as the dessert prep station, and you can only see so many of them coming together for service before you decide you’ll have to save room for your own.
The full bar stocks an interesting wine list, with plenty of eclectic bottles that pair especially well with seafood. The small draft beer selection favors local brews, and these are available by the pitcher – a rare feature at high-end restaurants that fits well with the shared plates format here.
Prices are in line with high-end New Orleans restaurants, though the less-than-conventional menu approach tends to make this hard to see at first. Small plates and snacks range anywhere between $6 and $14, while entrees go between $14 and $25 – except for the whole fish and shared dishes, which price out much higher. With drinks and a respectable run at the menu, a couple should expect to spend $100 to $120.
Peche is all about Louisiana seafood, which we all think we know pretty well. But here it’s prepared and presented in a much different fashion than we’re used to seeing. The kitchen’s approach is in line with a growing cult of wood-fire cookery in other cities (notably New York, where it’s a downright trend), but here it represents a serious departure from the normal seafood script. It’s an admirable approach, and maybe even a little gutsy. Link and crew are showing people something new. I love it, and would go back in a heartbeat.