Many things can be said about Ray "Pete" Peterman, the chef-owner of the new Peanches Food & Wine on 39th Street. He's hardworking but volatile, good-natured when he wants to be but a pistol when provoked. He doesn't suffer fools gladly, and his definition of fool is subject to minute-by-minute fine-tuning — just ask the local food blogger he chased out of his dining room and down the street. He's a loving husband and father, but if you get on his bad side — and I've been there — his grudge can have an almost religious zeal.
So let's simply say, then, that Peterman has the soul of an artist. And no matter what kind of experience you may have had in his previous two restaurants (the Sour Octopus and S.O. Redux), no matter how you feel about his sometimes brusque manner, Peterman is one of this city's finest chefs.
His latest project, Peanches (it's named for his late mother's pet pronunciation of peaches), may be his greatest challenge. It's a dinner-only bistro in a hard-to-see location in a funky strip center far enough from the established restaurants of 39th Street's restaurant row to be rendered almost invisible. (The best-known previous tenant was Pangea Café & Market, which closed four years ago.)
If you can't picture that location, good luck finding Peanches. There's no real signage, and the windows have been painted over. Even after you're inside the place, though, you might not know where you are. The interior is as dark as a tunnel.
The tables are covered with sheets of zinc, as at a Parisian bistro, and the décor combines original art (mostly by painter Richard Van Cleave, the husband of Café Sebastienne chef Jennifer Maloney) and illuminated beer signs.
"It doesn't matter what the place looks like, as long as the food is wonderful," one of my dining companions reminded me when we visited Peanches together. That friend was cookbook author and former restaurateur Lou Jane Temple, who should know — she once owned a restaurant on 39th Street, Café Lulu. "The chicken-liver pâté is ethereal," she told me that night.
She's right about that, too. If you go to Peanches and order nothing but Peterman's chicken liver "parfait" — a ridiculously rich combination of chicken livers, butter, cognac, Madeira and port, served with slices of the chef's homemade bread — you can be assured of experiencing a first-rate luxury. I lost myself in its spell, happily forgetting about the entrée I'd ordered as I spread the silky pâté on one slice of yeasty bread after another.
That was the evening I'd gone for an early meal before a concert, arriving with just one intention: to taste Peterman's "Missoura surf & turf" dinner. A few nights earlier, the dish had been listed on the menu as red-angus rib roast with sautéed frog legs. But Peterman changes his menu a lot — sometimes every night — so when I got the dish, the beef was as described (gorgeous, fork-tender, succulent), but the surf component had become white prawns, sautéed scampi-style. Instead of the potato gratin promised by the previous menu, Peterman served this night's plate with a fluffy mound of creamy turnip purée. A few bites and I all but wondered aloud: What's a frog leg? What's a potato?
Since Peterman opened Peanches two months ago, he has had a singular intention of his own: to turn the place into a reservations-required, prix fixe-meal restaurant. It's only natural that the man values reservations — he's often working alone in that tiny kitchen. But for now, he's continuing to serve both a four-course prix fixe dinner and eight individual choices (ranging from a country-style fried catfish, with corn grits and collard greens and pig-belly butter sauce, to a roasted half-rack of lamb).
Prix fixe isn't my thing, especially if I'm dining alone, but the $28 spread here is one of the best dining deals in town. Sitting by myself at the bar one night, I was served one exceptional course after another. (And I surprised myself with the increasing gusto that I applied to consuming each.)
That night's quartet of courses began with slices of mildly seasoned German sausage, neatly arranged on a bed of tart-sweet pickled red cabbage and golden-brown, pan-sautéed spaetzle. A hunk of pale-pink salmon arrived next, enthroned on a fluffy black-eyed-pea pancake with a spoonful of the sweetest, most tender collard greens. I could have stopped there, but the main course was next: a perfectly prepared filet, given fuller voice with a green-peppercorn sauce and served with a heap of hot, airy, roasted garlic mashers. (Dessert was a warm flourless chocolate torte topped with a cloud of hazelnut-dusted Chantilly cream — a splendid finale.)
A few nights later, the featured prix fixe started with a fat puck of crab cake, then moved on to a salmis of duck (almost a ragout, with slices of slow-cooked duck breast tender enough to yield to your fingers) on an amazingly sweet purée of fresh parsnips. A roasted leg of lamb was next, sided with polenta and turnips, with the chocolate torte again offered for dessert.
All of the dishes here — on both the prix fixe and a la carte menus — are prepared with Missouri ingredients, and Peterman has made several pairings with Missouri wines. It's a no-corners-cut business model, yet Peterman insists that he isn't losing money on his unabashedly luxurious prix fixe arrays. He could — maybe should — charge more. Even then, though, a diner would be a fool not to take advantage of it.
Ah, but Peterman really does dream of that reservations-only half of his plan. Peanches seats just 45 people, a size prohibitive to walk-ins when a place becomes popular. But in this unforgiving location, which I have yet to see full, Peterman doesn't encourage walk-in patrons.
"If I know what the reservations are, I can time everything so that our customers get the service and the kind of cuisine they deserve," he says. "I hate to be pushy about it, but in a restaurant this small, patrons with reservations have to come first. I've pissed some people off. But that's the way it is. I say that when someone makes a reservation, they're making a commitment to us. And my commitment is to giving them the best meal I can."
Peterman is an iconoclast, no question. But there's also no doubt that he honors that self-prescribed obligation, and Peanches is his best restaurant yet. So when he says he wants diners to do things his way, trust me, it's really worth it.