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Review: Peche

Ian McNulty on Donald Link's tip-to-tail Gulf fish restaurant

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As we dug snowy-white meat from between the bones of a hog snapper at Peche, it wasn't just the name of the fat, whole fish before us that brought to mind a Cajun boucherie. Rather, it was the bigger picture guiding this fascinating new restaurant from chef Donald Link. Like the pig made into charcuterie, chops and hams at a traditional boucherie, fish come to Peche whole and go out to tables as seafood salads and crudo dressed with oils and herbs, in fillets and steaks and, most dramatic, intact from tip to tail.

  Many of the cooked items spend time over an open wood fire that's visible from the dining room. This elemental but demanding cooking style produces dishes that look straightforward but can unfurl a depth of flavors.

  The hog snapper, for instance, was broiled in its own juices as the skin crisped to a charred pinkish-red. Eating it was a group effort that felt like unpacking a picnic basket prepared by someone else. The fish kept giving surprises, and the bits we extracted from little crevices proved the most flavorful.

  Such are the peculiar delights of Peche, a restaurant that comes along at the right time, with more interest now in holistic and transparent paths to the plate, and from the right team. Link's other nearby restaurants, Herbsaint, Cochon and Butcher, have built brand credibility, and here he and chefs/partners Stephen Stryjewski and Ryan Prewitt are leveraging some of it as they ask diners to try an unconventional approach to Gulf seafood.

  Sweet grilled tilefish, fried grouper neck (all luscious morsels packed around bones and fin), raw swordfish with crisp radishes and leeks — this isn't the stuff of a normal Saturday night fish fry. The menu format requires a bit of pliancy from customers, too. Some whole fish costs $40 to $50, and though it's intended to be shared, some guesswork goes into portioning a meal.

  The bar is elegant and supplied with intriguing wines and beer by the pitcher, while the dining room is long, laid-back and typically very loud. Between all the exposed wood, weathered beams and bench seating, it can feel more like a gourmet barn party than a fine-dining venue, and that casual vibe fits the style of the times too.

  There are more customary dishes than whole fish, like an excellent cut of wahoo with field peas and chili vinaigrette. Small plates can be hits (ground shrimp and tender noodles, anything from the raw bar) or misses (fried catfish that turns soggy in bland potlikker).

  But noshing on small plates at the bar is not the best way to experience Peche. Diners can do that at countless other restaurants. Team Link has a vision in play here, and it becomes a very compelling one to share while passing grilled vegetables and hunks of herb-strewn fish around a table of friends.

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