Hotly anticipated for some time now, the new Peche Seafood Grill might seem a departure for chef Donald Link, whose Herbsaint, Cochon and Butcher menus revere the whole hog. And, to be fair, it is.
But don’t get the impression that Peche, on Magazine Street in the CBD, is your standard Crescent City fish and oyster joint.
Link, along with fellow chefs and co-owners Ryan Prewitt and Stephen Stryjewski, has introduced a seafood restaurant unlike anything this city has experienced, employing an impressive, custom-built wood-fire hearth to grill up an array of outstandingly fresh fish, mollusks, bivalves and crustaceans.
Just as Cochon and Butcher worship the pig, Peche prays at the altar of King Neptune, Lord of the Deep.
“Donald, Stephen and I did a lot of traveling and eating, and working on the concept of what this restaurant would really be,” said chef Prewitt, a Memphis native who cut his culinary teeth in San Francisco before moving to New Orleans to work with Link as a cook and eventually chef de cuisine at Herbsaint.
“We knew we wanted it to be seafood, but we didn’t quite know how we wanted to do that. One of the menu concepts going back a couple of years ago was a classic New Orleans lakefront seafood restaurant, in fact. That idea changed direction when we went to Uruguay and spent a couple of weeks cooking with people down there.
“We just fell in love with this idea of live fire cooking. And then we spent the next year and a half cooking with this group called the ‘Fat Back Collective,’ who specialize in barbecue.”
A trip to San Sebastian, Spain, offered the three restaurateurs further inspiration. Said Prewitt, “We had a really moving experience at this place, Etxebarri, which is just one guy cooking over coals, and the food that he’s able to produce there had the subtle hint of wood smoke, but also all of these amazing flavors and textures. The level of the complexity of flavor that he’s able to achieve with such simplicity was really so inspiring.”
At the heart of Peche is the custom-built hearth, a 6-by-4-foot box lined with concrete, whose exterior walls are made of a volcanic composite that diffuses the heat.
Prewitt uses a large metal chimney to burn down pecan and oak logs to create charcoal, which he then sweeps under the grill face to sear the seafood. It’s an impressive sight.
“At about 8 o’clock at night, when we get busy, that basket is about half full of wood, and it looks like a rocket is going off in there,” said the chef.
And how does this gambit pay off?
A recent visit to Peche began with offerings from their raw bar, in this case a half-dozen Louisiana oysters ($1.20 each) and a flounder crudo — the raw fish sliced delicately thin, simply seasoned and adorned with cantaloupe, squash blossoms and purslane leaves ($9). Both were a joy. Prewitt chooses his local oysters — in this case from Louisiana Oyster Areas 12 and 9 — on the smaller side, to provide “a more developed salinity.” As for the crudo, the chef noted that it had been swimming in the Gulf of Mexico the previous morning.
“Our goal is really to focus on the fish of this area and present it in an interesting way that’s not going too far over the top in any direction,” he said.
Our first offering from the hearth: huge, buttery, grilled Royal Red shrimp from the Alabama Gulf Coast ($12). Said Prewitt, “These come from about 2,000 feet deep, and they’re very different from all the other fish that we have. We don’t put any salt on them, and there’s no salt in the butter that we coat them in. All the salt that you taste is in the natural salinity of the shrimp.”
The chef also noted, much to my surprise, that one can in fact eat the legs of the Royal Reds, which offer a wonderfully briny crunch before they melt on your tongue.
Also on hand were grilled mussels from Swan Island, Maine ($12), which the chef grills and steams by turning them upside-down in a bowl over the open flames, then serves with a fennel aioli.
The star of the meal was a two-pound, whole grilled redfish coated in a citrusy, herbacious salsa verde and red chile flakes ($35, depending on market price), which is meant to be shared by two diners, or four, if appetizers are included.
Prewitt’s decision to focus on high quality seafood and then “let the coals do their work,” is clearly in evidence here. Taking 30 minutes to fully cook, it’s sauced heavily, so diners can get a taste of salsa with every bite.
“It tastes great because it’s cooked on the bone on a wood fire grill, said Prewitt, “and because it tends to spend a bit more time over the coals, it really soaks up those flavors.
Rounding out the day was a generous slice of key lime pie adorned with a small wedge of white chocolate brittle ($8), courtesy of Link Group pastry chef Rhonda Ruckman.
It’s not often New Orleans gets a restaurant that feels new and exciting, and at the same time so comfortably familiar. Expect more good things out of this kitchen, and in the meantime there’s plenty to get hungry seafood fans fired up.