325 Bowery, New York NY 10003 (At Second Street; map); 646-602-7105
Service: Friendly, efficient, and casual.
Setting: Hip/casual. Extraordinarily loud.
Must-Haves: Plancha-Seared Squid, Succotash, Shrimp and Grits
Cost: Appetizers $5-13, Entrees $20-25
Grade: B. Food is properly cooked, but lacks flavor.
William Tigertt and Taavo Somer, the duo behind the downscale American-retro Freemans recently opened Peels on the Bowery with a menu that's similar in style to its alley-hidden sibling, but an emphasis on Southern cooking. The downstairs of the two story restaurant features a utilitarian take-away counter and large communal table intended for quick midday meals. According to our contributor Kathy Chan, the lunchtime pastries and sandwiches are killer. I opted to visit at night for the slightly more upscale dinner menu that they serve upstairs.
Like Freemans, Peels tries to uphold its aura of coolness by refusing reservations for parties smaller than 6. It's a frustrating strategy, but it appears to be working—by 8pm, the bar area was packed with small groups and couples waiting for tables. It's a good thing their drinks are good enough to hold you over.
The first thing you notice when you enter the open second floor space is that it's loud. I mean really loud. A spacious bar area, banquettes of all sizes, and generous drinks invite laughing and talking. And without any soft surfaces or curtains to buffer the sound, an echo-chamber effect sets in: I could hear the conversation from a table on the opposite side of the dining room as clearly as I could hear the person sitting directly across from me. My vocal chords and ears were well-exercised by the end of the meal, though things did quiet down a bit as more bodies filled up the empty space by the bar, providing a baffle for the noise.
Southern cuisine is not the easiest to translate into a white tablecloth setting. Something—the soul, perhaps?—inevitably gets lost in the transition, but the menu at Peels starts out strong. Andouille sausage came bound in perfectly crisp, light corn batter, though the sausage itself lacked the salty bite of a normal hot dog. More smokiness came through in the excellent plancha-seared squid with sweet shishito peppers. It's got the charred, allium-centric kick of a Chinese stir fry, and is probably the best dish in the house.
Of the two shrimp appetizers, the Shrimp and Grits was the better choice. The intensely corn-y grits were creamy, buttery, and delicious, with a soft fried egg to push it over the top. Given the quality of the grits themselves, the shrimp are almost extraneous. Good thing you can order the grits as a side dish.
The Statesboro stew (one of the three soups offered that night on a rotating menu), on the other hand, fell flat. Despite a promising base of Andouille and shrimp, it lacked complexity and seasoning—a theme the dishes returned to throughout the evening.
Take the fried chicken. It started out promising with a crisp, greaseless, and well-browned crust and juicy, properly cooked meat. But like the stew, it was short on seasoning. With something like French fries, you can always add salt at the table (their fries need it). With chicken, if the bird's not brined or seasoned properly to begin with, there's not much you can do for it after it's been cooked. And at $20, you'd expect more than a chunk of past-its-prime corn to come with the dish.
The burger, on the other hand, was excellent. It's made with rough-ground grass-fed beef with the slightly gamey flavor of matured meat, a thick slice of cave-aged cheddar adding another funky punch to the sandwich. Like a poor-man's version of Minetta Tavern's Black Label burger in flavor (minus the caramelized onion), it's a rich, complex burger made for steak lovers. Its only flaw was a slight lack of juiciness, but that's par for the course with grass-fed beef.
The vegetarian succotash with charred corn and okra was another high note. Finally, some flavor! The vegetables were cooked in true Southern style, which means soft (none of that frou-frou al dente stuff, please!). Unlike the muffin-esque Northern style cornbread on offer at most restaurants in the city, Southern corn bread has no extra sugar, and is all about intense corn flavor. Peels' might be the best in the city, tender and buttery with a crisp, deep-brown crust.
I'm not sure that they offer it, but it'd be worth asking for a side of that cornbread even if you don't order the succotash.
Tender, deeply caramelized, and cooked just this-side of rare, the sweet Maine sea scallops brought a welcome light spot to the relatively heavy menu. A salad of shaved carrots, radish, and greens further lightened the deal. It's a highlight of the entrée choices.
As for the side dishes, I love the bitter, peppery bite of mustard greens, especially when they're cooked down until almost melting. Here, they were a little undercooked for my taste, but delicious nonetheless. Hush puppies were also great: light, crisp, and fresh, with a slightly custardy center and intense corn flavor.
It's tough to beat vanilla ice cream, hot fudge, whipped cream, brownie bites, nuts, and pretzels for dessert, and Peels' sundae was as good as it gets. Though it's not on the dessert menu, the intensely thick and creamy whiskey-spiked chocolate shake served in a milk bottle off of the cocktail list might give the sundae a run for its money.
Given that they've only had a few weeks to work out kinks, Peels gives a good first impression. Usually, it's the service that takes time to get up to speed at new restaurants. Here, it was the opposite: service was as professional, efficient, and friendly as could be (despite a couple episodes of dish auctioning: "Who had the scallops?"). The food, on the other hand, showed promising technique and fantastic ingredient sourcing, but ultimately fell flat. With a little time and a lot more salt, this will hopefully change.