Monday, October 11, 2010

PEELS: It is Very Appealing

And then there are the times that you don't follow the chef, but things still turn out swimmingly. That's not to say that I ended up at Peels entirely by happenstance: the team is from Freemans,of which I am extremely fond, and the location is much more conveniently situated than it's brethren. In fact, the impossible-to-miss marquis lighting cries out in a a flashy, carnival-bright kind of way- you can almost imagine it starting to blink like a pinball machine on tilt- while the restaurant itself is rustic and understated. Welcomely, though, the signage is a beacon to the delights within.
We arrived early under hurricane-threatening skies, uncertain whether Peels followed Freemans discouragement of reservations. But the place was relatively empty (unsurprisingly for the hour and clime) so we were seated immediately upon slightly too high bar stools at a long wooden communal table, with convenient purse hooks on the opposing wall (love those hooks, even more so when they are underneath the table). The floors are dark, the woodwork white-washed, a long bar spanning the length of the room, and for the first time in ages, the rare, concealed kitchen. The magic was happening, this time, behind a pair of jaunty swinging doors.
And speaking of jaunty, the waiters sport an eclectic mix of stripey shirts and flower-print vests... and apparently pretty much whatever else they want. The bartender had her hair in a funny droopy loop on one side, and it's this kind of whimsical nonchalance that kind of sets the stage for the menu. At a glance, nothing particularly earthshaking. The descriptions are, in fact, fairly minimal. Had the food arrived with such a lack of pomp, we were in for some severe disappointment. In fact, I was here with my sister from San Fransisco, and I intentionally chose somewhere I thought would be nice and buzzy. Since the crowd was thinner than Donald Trump's combover, I was a little tense. But as soon as the poblano corn soup showed up in its cute little squat tureen, the perfume alone alleviated all my concerns. The broth was thinner than I'd expected, but the flavor so rife with corn and riddled with little pungent, pickley things that it more than compensated. And that was even before the powerful kick of the poblano made its delayed introduction... a glorious, smoky afterburn with some serious turbocharge.

Making our way through the menu was a little sticky, though. Peels has only been open for a month and a half, and our waiter pronounced himself a newcomer on the already new scene, although was oddly training another waiter who followed him adhesively throughout the entire evening. To his credit, he never answered a question he didn't know. To his fault, he didn't know a lot. This resulted in myriad trips back to the kitchen to ask what the chef's name was (Preston Madson)/what his market vegetables were/what the fruit was in the crisp/etc. But he was genuine, and helpful, and just-the-right-friendly so as to make up for the lack of polish (hopefully his trainee won't think that's standard run-of-show). Plus, he looked cute in his funny yellow rose vest.

The standout dish of the evening (of the year?? I'm
NOT kidding!) was another app.: Montauk squid a la plancha with padron peppers, lime and cilantro. Again, not so much to go on, and I guess I was expecting a simple grilled squid with a bit of peppery salad. But this squid, this squid was so expertly grilled and then formed into a sculpture so beautiful you might wonder if Madson apprenticed under Chilhuly. The tentacles were perfectly tender and meaty on a bed of gently peppery roasted padrons, who's sumptuous juice pooled below into a zesty, umami-rich sauce, sparked with lime and cilantro. With this, Peels established itself as not only cool-because-it's-Freemans' cousin-cool, but just downright awesome.

Prices are mid-range, but portions aren't skimpy, and the flavors robust. The fresh fried chicken is a rather enormous portion of poultry (the menu states "birds", but I'm pretty sure that there is only a substantial piece of one on a single plate at any given time), with a full ear of roasted corn and chunks of juicy watermelon. This is one of those last-hurrahs of summer kind of dishes, and on a stormy night of a calendar tumbling into fall, it probably won't be around much longer. Maine Diver scallops, however, given their flexible
garniture of market vegetables (which after consulting the chef, turned out to be a warmed melange of barely cooked fennel, carrots and radishes) should stick around, and the highlight is definitely in the seafood here as opposed to the salad beneath. A nice, bright little farrago of fresh veggies, but nothing to write home about. The scallops, though, were seared golden, napped with a tangy-rich confit of yellow tomato jam, and six big ones in number, which could be worth a note to Mom. Or at least enough to share one whole one with your sister across the table.

I like how this place seems to celebrate Americana without kitsch or gimmicks. America's kind of struggling right now, right? So it's a good reminder that there's still a lot to be proud of here, be it patchwork quilted cotton vests or the abundance of sweet corn, okra, local seafood and charcuterie, grassfed-beef and cave-aged cheddar. But the Eton fool was enough to pull
me out a Norman Rockwell calendar, a marvelous rendition of the English pudding of scrumptious summer berries (black and blue- too bad it wasn't called a Bruised Fool), crushed meringues, plush yogurt mousse and lemon verbena ice cream. After all, if we were going to channel in the British for the final note, we might as well grasp at the last vestige of the summer's harvest as well. This was a fantastic decision (although the warm fruit crisp sounded tempting as well).

The name of the restaurant provides the only remaining uncertainty. Even the waiter (add this to the list) didn't know, but on this one he couldn't find out, either. I like to think it's like the "nose to tail" of market produce, like "core to peel". Or peeled down to the essence, all riff-raff filtered out and only the good stuff left. The other option might be that is like a peeled off cohort of Freemans. At any rate, I'm not much for repeat performances in regards to restaurant visitation, but I can definitely see myself back here, all things considered.

So I guess I am following the chef here too, after all.

325 Bowery (Corner of 2nd St.)
New York City, NY 10003