NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA
Eating is a sensory experience. You should taste, smell, touch, see and (in some cases) hear your food. This is why I hate the word “foodie.” It’s an easy title to slap on someone that writes a food blog. As I’ve said before, I’m an eater. Eating is sensory. Eating is community. Foodies post pictures of their meal to Instagram, Facebook and Twitter in a “look at me” attention grab. An eater doesn’t just show you what they ate. They tell you about the smell of the smoke from the wood grill and how it permeated the tuna filet. Eaters tell you about the snap of the crab leg, the texture and taste of the slimy, briny oyster. They tell you that the head-on shrimp were some of the most beautiful pieces of seafood they ever encountered.
If Cochon is Donald Link‘s most important contribution to American cuisine, Peche Restaurant is a statement about the purity of seafood. Consider that the Gulf of Mexico has been tainted by the Deepwater Horizon oil well accident, and that it was supposed to be the death of Gulf seafood. Then, consider that the six Hopedale, La. oysters I dressed with lemon, mignonette and hot sauce, in their raw glory, were among the best I’ve ever had. As good as Hog Island. As good as Chesapeake Bay. And good enough to impress the discerning palates at Serious Easts, which just named Peche one of the “five great oyster joints in New Orleans.”
Think about the Royal Red shrimp — six of them were steamed and served heads intact in garlic butter — and how it should be a thing of the past. The Royal Red, resembling and tasting more like a Langostino due to its deepwater habitat, should have been swept away in the spill. Instead, they were so good that I thought about eating the damn head, only stopping short because they weren’t properly prepared (deep fried, please). The snap of the shell, the smell and taste of saltwater in the fish, the spiny and ugly exterior…the piqued the senses of everyone on my side of the five-person table. For me, they created pleasure. For the less than thrillseeking person across from me, it was gross. But that’s fine. Food that evokes no response is not worth eating. Slurping a slimy, briny oyster is enough to turn off most people. Then there are those like that can’t get enough. I contained myself to the six. Had I been dining with a smaller group, or with The Wife, we would have been at the raw bar in the back of the dining area.
A plate of smelt rounded out my small plate tour. You don’t often find smelt on restaurant menus, namely because they are take them or leave them fish. Beheaded, breaded and fried, the smelt bodies were crisp, salty and immediately brought back memories of Christmas Eve, with my grandmother behind the deep fryer dropping fish in oil. The chili aioli on the side was nice, but no match for the flavor of the fish.
The menu revolves around a smattering of small plates, wood-fired grill fish and a rotating collection of fresh fish. During our visit, whole speckled trout and red snapper were available, as were two types of Gulf of Mexico-bred oysters. Unlike the similar-sounding Pesce Seafood Bar in San Francisco, small plates are not the focal point of the menu, but it is a way to sample the best of the Gulf.
I talk a lot about dining experiences, where the time from sitting down to departure transcends mere meals. What Donald Link does at Peche is create an atmosphere where fish is the lingua franca, but sensory pleasure is the goal.
Peche Restaurant is located at 800 Magazine Street, on the corner of Julie Street, in New Orleans’ Warehouse District. Reservations are accepted by phone and online. Dinner for five, with drinks, was $145 before tip.