Peanches serves a singular vision and excellent food

Pete Peterman’s ever-changing menu showcases his passion and talent.

01/17/2013 10:35 AM

05/16/2014 8:48 PM

When Peanches opened a few months ago, in a hilltop strip center along 39th Street in midtown, it marked the return of one of the more colorful and creative chefs the local food scene has known.

Pete Peterman, a brawny Army veteran, former Cadillac mechanic and onetime boilermaker trainee who decided he’d rather be cooking, has been associated with some of the best restaurants around, including the American, Le Fou Frog and the long gone but still lamented Stolen Grill.

Peterman opened his own place, the Sour Octopus, way up north in 2003, then tried again a couple of years later with SORedux in Columbus Park. Both of those places won over the palate of The Star’s critic at the time, who pinned four stars on each for Peterman’s skillful and thoughtful food. But a falling out with his partner led to the relatively swift closing of SORedux and added to Peterman’s reputation as a gnarly, intractable visionary.

Sure, I’ve heard the stories, but how much should they count? Peterman is the Charles Mingus of chef/restaurateurs: a brilliant composer/arranger who sometimes puts on a display you’d rather not experience.

After my first visit to Peanches, I got a late-night tweet from Peterman — I’d never met the man — asking me to leave him alone. In subsequent messages and brief conversations, we got past that, and I came to admire his challenging sense of humor and his commitment to cooking at a very high level. “I am what I am,” he told me on the phone the other day.

Yes, I’m willing to let what Peterman does in the kitchen speak for him more loudly than his unpredictable temperament. Unless you’re given direct reason to think otherwise, you should, too. This man is serious about food. He bakes his own bread every morning. His menu changes frequently, often daily, and he crafts dishes that speak of down-home Missouri as much as they do French culinary technique.

Since opening Peanches — that’s how his late mother pronounced “peaches,” he says — Peterman has tinkered with his reservation-only, fixed-price concept.

The first time I landed there, without a reservation, I was able to eat at the bar and choose from a short list of appetizers. A charcuterie plate, including thin slices of smoked duck breast, an astoundingly terrific chicken liver pate and a bowl of vermouth-tinged mussels, proved to be a great introduction to Peterman’s kitchen.

Walk-ins were soon discouraged, and Peanches went to a strict, reservation-only format. At a subsequent dinner for four, our party had a choice of a four-course or a six-course meal, and all of us were required to go along with one or the other. Despite some grumblings about that, we came away much satisfied and rather amazed that our six courses could be had for only $45 a person.

Now — a much better arrangement — the menu offers a four-course meal ($32) with two optional supplements. Wine pairings are also available — $16 a person for the four-course option the night I was there — though not required.

Peterman’s plates come to the table as inspired, subtly made tone poems in food. At our first dinner, a “yardbird” chicken was not a standard-issue breast but a two-part medley of planked and geometrically composed pieces. Similar, contrasting arrangements continued in beef and lamb courses, and it occurred to me that Peterman’s effort at presentation was notable.

His way with sauces, purees and sides unfailingly added to the thrills: A salmon filet and two mussels came with a mustard-based swipe on the plate; turnip tops seemed to be a defiantly individual gesture; and other seasonal accents included squash, roasted garlic potato puree, quinoa and more. A “Missoura-style” crabcake got its name from the cornmeal center.

Desserts that night included a relatively simple cheesecake and a dense chocolate ganache; both were decorative treatments that our party judged to be fantastic. Peterman’s pastry chef is his 12-year-old stepdaughter, Lourdes Dunn, who has been cooking by his side for years. She’s very good.

At our second dinner, a small crabcake arrived as an amuse bouche, and, though Kansas City’s inland crabcakes tend to be heavy on the filler, Peterman is generous with the crabmeat, and he seemed to coax an enormous amount of flavor out of it for his compact version.

The first course took seafood to an even higher level: plump white prawns took on a velvety texture after being poached in garlic butter (or, more accurately, an emulsified beurre monté); they sat atop a round ricotta-filled, saffron-poached ravioli. The dish was dreamy and luscious, and I would’ve been ecstatic had I the choice to eat a big juicy bowl of it: fill ’er up and call it a night.

But we carried on to more courses: a supplemental serving of almost fluffy veal sweetbreads with an oxtail bolognese; a tender chicken medley (a small breast portion plus slices of chicken sausage) with potato puree and braised collard greens; and a rustic lamb with lentils and cauliflower.

We had been the first table to arrive that night, though three more couples soon followed. That was a total of eight Friday night diners, during a quiet holiday week, in a room that seats, by my count, about 36 in five booths and four tables. It’s not clear whether Peanches is fighting against its location — a block west of Southwest Trafficway, it’s not really that inconvenient, but there’s no foot traffic — or against a lack of marketing funds.

As a family-operated place — Peterman’s wife, Heather, and a niece run the dining room — Peanches feels like the kind of quiet, slow-moving but ultimately remarkable place you’d find in the European countryside and write home about.

It’s the polar opposite of, say, Cooper’s Hawk, the industrial-scale new restaurant and wine emporium on the Plaza. With the recent closing of Lill’s on 17th, there’s almost no other restaurant like it in Kansas City.

If Peanches operated in a midtown bungalow rather than its high-ceilinged, subtly adorned storefront space, perhaps it would provide a better match of setting, culinary intent and diner expectations. As it is, Peanches and Peterman deserve accolades for the food alone and for aiming to succeed with a lone-operator vision. Here’s hoping the ambition and the work will carry them through.

Star rating

Food:

★★★½ Exquisitely made and intensely flavored dishes, like little tone poems in food.

Service:

★★  Unfussy, improvisational, casual; in short: mostly adequate.

Atmosphere:

★★  Food euphoria somewhat tempered by dim lights, empty tables. A little techno-dance pulse on the sound system helped subtly lift the mood one night.

Hours:

5 p.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday

Entree average:

NA (Dinners are fixed-price: 4 courses for $32, plus optional wine pairings and supplements.

Vegetarian options:

Kitchen will accommodate most special diets with at least 48 hours’ notice.

Handicap accessible: Yes; roomy dining room.

Kids:

No separate menu.

Noise level:

Muted.

Reservations:

Required; via phone or website

Star code:

★  Fair, ★★  Good, ★★★  Excellent, ★★★★  Extraordinary

Price code:

$ Average entree under $10; $$ Average entree under $20; $$$ Average entree under $30; $$$$ Average entree over $30

Code of ethics:

Starred reviews are written after a minimum of two visits to a restaurant. When required, reservations are made in a name other than the reviewer’s. The Star pays for reviewer’s meals.

Recommended

Fixed-price multicourse menu changes almost daily, so go with the flow and don’t overlook dessert.

What to drink

Beers and bar service available, plus a relatively short list of not terribly expensive old and new world wines, including a few Missouri bottles.

Whites range roughly from $20 to $37; red bottles range somewhat higher — and a bottle of Domaine de la Verde Vacqueyras ($42), a Rhone village blend, had a perfect blend of spice and bold fruit to complement the wide range of dishes and sauces we had one night.

Most questions about wine tend to exceed the knowledge of the servers, who usually head to the kitchen to consult with the boss for an answer.

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