An American In Paris: La Peg Revisited
When the server told me the special for the night was a plate of snails packed with herb butter, I didn’t get them, because snails wouldn’t really have gone with everything else we were ordering. Wouldn’t pair with the fried cheese curds. Wouldn’t sit right against the oysters Rockefeller or feel right sharing a table with the chicken potpie.
Further, the snails? They were just kind of sad. They’d been a star of chef Peter Woolsey’s menu during La Peg’s first iteration, as a funky, modernized and geographically unhinged French brasserie—the kind of place where you could get bone marrow with sauce gribiche served alongside scrambled eggs and toast as a snack at the bar on a Friday night, or authentically French onion soup, potato rosti, pho consommé, and coconut milk-laced mango and passion fruit sorbet for dessert. A place where the fat Burgundy snails sat proudly among the entrées and couldn’t have been more French if Woolsey’s crew had served them with tiny little Tricolour flags flying from their shells.
Now, just a special. Mentioned as an afterthought—Oh, in case you guys are interested—and completely out of place in this new, reworked La Peg, with its Yankee pot roast instead of choucroute garnie and spaghetti and meatballs in place of white-wine-and-lemon-braised rabbit over tagliatelle.
La Peg is no longer a French restaurant. Not even a little bit. The “brasserie” label that still lingers in descriptions and on the website is a clunky and inaccurate way to describe what is essentially now a big, high-ceilinged and rustically industrial warehouse for the storage of American cuisine’s greatest hits, 1950-1996. It’s a museum. A retirement community for the clams casino and cedar-plank salmons of the world.
And it’s really, really good.
“Dude! Jason! You gotta come check this out, man. Look!”
Peter Woolsey hands me a big, stiff sheet of paper—a menu, printed on heavy stock, in small type.
We’re at some kind of event—some Food-splosion or WhiskeyPalooza or whatever, shoved together on the crowded floor. And Woolsey, he’s got the crazy eyes. Actually, I’ve never seen him without the crazy eyes except maybe once or twice, at the end of a long night, when he was completely wiped, exhausted.
But tonight, he’s like a lab rabbit wired on ADHD meds, his eyes huge behind thick glasses, one mauled finger stabbing the paper next to an entry for New England clam chowder.
“Not thick, man. But thin, you know. Real thin. The way it’s supposed to be, right?”
He tells me he’s excited because he knows that I know the difference. That he knows that I know that he knows the difference, too. That we, together, know the way it’s supposed to be.
Now, I wasn’t exactly a picture of sobriety that night, but I do remember squinting at the menu and seeing, swimming up out of the blur, words like “cheeseburger” and “broiled trout.”
“Oysters Rockefeller,” Woolsey said. “Clams casino. Pot roast. It’s a new menu, man. Whole new menu. I wanted you to see it because we’re doing it now.”
All classic American, he said. The old, good stuff. “But done French, you know?” Which essentially meant done right. Done not-shitty. Because here’s the thing. Woolsey is a French-trained chef. He runs Bistrot La Minette (his original restaurant) like a one-way time machine connected directly to the Left Bank’s not-too-distant past, and he’s good at it. Truly talented, and (maybe more importantly) immersed in his chosen milieu.
But if there’s one thing a French chef knows more than the elements of French cuisine, it’s that in the entire world of cuisine, there are two ways to proceed: the French way, and the wrong way.
I was a French chef once, too. Years ago. So I hear him when he says this, and I understand. Which is why, when I go there and order the clam chowder he was so positive I would understand, and I put my spoon into it, I shouldn’t be at all surprised that it is, without exaggeration, the best clam chowder I’ve had in years (and maybe ever). It tastes, at first blush, like perfect buttered bread turned liquid and creamy. Then of the slick fattiness of cream and bacon. Then of the sea. Then of the gentling parsley oil drooled on top. It’s a thin, perfectly smooth, perfectly composed broth—not watery, but not all gooey and clumpy like the million terrible bowls of New England clam chowder I’ve had in my life. The potatoes give it seriousness and solidity. The bacon lardoons lingering near the bottom retain their crunch and flavor. And the meat of the cherrystone clams tastes like it was in the shell five minutes ago.
Because I’m a dick, I order the things I think the kitchen is most likely to screw up, to make dull or stupid. The fried cheese curds are coated in herbed bread crumbs instead of battered, pulled from the oil just a shade light of golden, and served leaking, messy, and with a side of sweet marinara. The oysters Rock could’ve been rescued from a first-class table on the Titanic before it went down. The foie gras is Americanized in the most superficial way—by serving it over johnnycakes with maple syrup—but the luxuriousness and essential Frenchness of it remain in the preparation of the base ingredients, codified by a chef who has probably handled 10,000 lobes of foie; who could still fire a perfect plate of foie if you removed one hand, one leg, one eye and half his brain. Woolsey’s chef de cuisine, Patrick Limanni, has learned his lessons well.
The roasted chicken (again) is maybe one of the best versions I’ve had in years of grudge-eating this dullest, most workaday of all possible menu items. At La Peg it’s roasted chicken, mashed potatoes and pan jus, with peas and carrots as veg, which, I have to think, is almost a kind of laughing middle finger from Woolsey. Of course he’s going to pair the most maligned, most TV dinner-ish veg with the roasted chicken. And then, because he’s who he is, he’s going to do that half-joke of a side better than anyone—mostly by soaking it in butter, cooking it soft, preserving the color of the vegetables, then adding more butter. The chicken is amazing—a leg, a thigh and a breast, each perfectly cooked, juicy, tender, deeply flavored, and jacketed in a skin lacquered like old wood and crisp enough to snap under the blade of a knife.
Cedar-plank salmon? That’s another joke of a dish. If you ate out anywhere in the United States from, say, 1994 to 1998, you ate cedar-plank salmon. It was on the menu at every “nice” restaurant. Every cook of a certain age knows it, hates it, has jokes about it. It was the defining dish of a terrible time in American cuisine—like raspberry vinaigrette or chocolate lava cake.
But it’s a great dish, actually, when done properly—a thick-cut salmon steak, individually smoked by being placed on a thin shingle of cedar and shoved into a murderously hot oven. It takes a glaze fantastically well, absorbs all that sweet smoke. The problem? It was almost never done particularly well in its day, and as a result became an object of mockery. Woolsey knows all of this and tries to subvert the narrative of the cedar-plank salmon by treating it the way he would the most delicate French entrée. In this case, that means a sweet mustard glaze, a vague hint of smoke lingering in the fat of the thick-cut steak, and a throne of rice pilaf for it to sit on, topped with a bed of slow-simmered broccoli rabe.
It’s not completely successful. There are bites that are so salty they sting my mouth. The pilaf tastes dry and woody. And while I can see in the bones of the dish the attempt to elevate something that has essentially become historical roadkill, that’s not enough.
Still, I love the full-bore crazy of what Woolsey has done here. The space (attached to the Fringe Arts theater) was always beautiful. The bar never seems to get enough traffic (it’s even left un-manned on some nights), but when the crowds come in, the place rocks like culture’s ground zero. And if you’re in the neighborhood and hungering for a re-imagined fast-food cheeseburger (thin patty, potato roll, special sauce and Cooper’s sharp cheddar), the oysters your grandfather loved or the best bowl of clam chowder ever, you should dive right in.
Because if nothing else, Woolsey is playing a pretty cool game here. And it’s worth buying the ticket, if only to taste what American cuisine could have been.
2 Stars — Come if you’re in the neighborhood