Peasant Bistro hasn't had an easy first couple of months. The restaurant opened in late February and took a blow in its first two weeks when the tornado struck downtown.
"Even though we had no damage, the loss of the Hinman Dental conference, SEC Championship and the Home Show was huge," owner Maureen Kalmanson said to me via e-mail in the week following the tornado. "We had so been counting on a great weekend and an introduction to a lot of people."
The other blow has been even more severe. Opening chef Shane Devereux, whose early efforts were well-received, has left the restaurant for unknown reasons. The restaurant is still serving his menu, but it's currently operating without a chef.
As is our policy, I waited more than a month before visiting the restaurant. I've been back multiple times, hoping to find the competent restaurant described to me by trusted friends and colleagues early on. Sadly, I did not experience that restaurant.
What I have experienced is a beautiful space and earnest folks who don't seem to know what they're doing at the table or on the plate.
It's too bad, because Devereux's menu is promising, and the space is fantastic. A large sweeping staircase connects the downstairs bar and upstairs dining room, and big twinkly starburst light fixtures offset the airy, white-bricked space for an understated elegance.
It's obvious from the menu that Devereux is an ambitious and self-assured chef. The appetizer list alone includes pork belly, sweetbreads and chicken livers. The sweetbreads especially intrigued me. Advertised as "Buffalo" style, I envisioned a crispy, spicy amalgamation of high and lowbrow cuisine. Instead, the dish is a seared sweetbread with a weak and slightly watery Mediterranean-style tomato sauce, served over smashed potatoes. The only nod to the American bar food that supposedly inspired the dish were some weird strips of pickled celery, which provided an unwelcome sour side note.
The pork belly appetizer served with frisée over a bed of lentils was the most successful appetizer I tried. It would have been delicious if the lentils had been cooked. They were so crunchy and underseasoned that I seriously questioned whether someone had mistakenly used a batch of soaked, but uncooked lentils.
The chicken liver appetizer looked reminiscent of chef Shaun Doty's chopped liver – a large pile of liver and egg heaped on grilled bread. But at Peasant Bistro, the mixture's only seasonings appeared to be mustard and salt. A ton of salt. Even if the onion or fresh herbs that the dish so desperately needs had been present, the oversalting still would have made it inedible.
I hoped to find solace in the kitchen's less ambitious appetizers. A beet and goat cheese salad found a pleasant crunch and earthiness with the addition of pine nuts, but the tuna tartare was the most uninspired version of the dish I've had in a long time. The tiny portion of flabby, muddy-flavored tuna came with basic chopped shallots and not much else. It's shatteringly obvious that no one is overseeing this kitchen, and that these aren't dishes to be attempted by people who didn't conceive of them.
I'd like to pause here to talk about service. There are many things I try to ignore and forgive at a restaurant – small things such as forgotten items on place settings, pervasive fruit flies, waiters who don't know wine service, long waits for food or for plates to be cleared, or conversely, entrees that come out within minutes of appetizers. Having all of these things happen during the course of one meal is disconcerting. If Peasant Bistro needs one thing badly (besides a chef), it's a highly trained floor manager. In all my visits I couldn't pick out anyone who seemed to be watching the floor. One night, waits for everything were excruciatingly long. Another night, we were rushed through our dinner unceremoniously. And more than once I was given lunch menus at dinnertime. These are all small things, but compounded they make for an infuriating experience.
The missteps would be easier to overlook if the food was pleasantly distracting. Entrées fared slightly better than appetizers, but here, too, results ranged from passable to disastrous.
An entrée of scallops over seasonal risotto succeeded, with fat, flavorful scallops and a rich, cheesy risotto. The addition of pine nuts to the risotto did make for a strange textural contrast – the crunch almost evoking bits of uncooked rice – but it was tasty. On the other hand, a strip steak seemed to have been cooked on a grill that wasn't hot. Its side of Brussels sprouts was also undercooked. But the entrée menu's low point was a bouillabaisse without any of the advertised zucchini, fingerling potatoes or fennel, that was cooked in what tasted like canned chicken stock. The seafood was fresh and flavorful, but the swampy brown broth was horrifying.
Desserts included a light and aromatic ginger panna cotta, and a retro-sounding cookies-and-milkshake combo, which pairs biscotti and madelines with an average shake. When I had them, the "cookies" were pre-refrigerated on a cold plate and the madelines were hard. Proust would have wept.
It was hard for me not to weep as well. I'm not sure I've ever come across a menu with such promise and been so consistently disappointed. I'm not sure I've ever tried so hard to like a place that seems incapable of getting it right. I sincerely hope that over the next few months, Peasant Bistro finds its footing. The basic necessities – a chef and an exacting floor manager – would be good places to start.