Chef John Neal opened Peristyle in 1992. When he died in 1995, his protg Anne Kearney bought the restaurant from his family and proceeded to build its stature to the top tier of New Orleans restaurants. Peristyle was gutted by fire in 1999, but after nine months of repairs and remodeling, its regulars filed right back in for a celebratory reopening. Then, in 2004, Kearney sold the place to chef Tom Wolfe.
Wolfe worked at Mr. B's Bistro and Emeril's Restaurant before opening his first restaurant, Wolfe's of New Orleans, on the lakefront in 2000. With the acquisition of Peristyle, he seemed poised to build a local empire of his own. His third restaurant, Wolfe's in the Warehouse, opened in the summer of 2005 -- a few weeks before Hurricane Katrina. Despite damage, Wolfe's in the Warehouse was one of the first fine-dining restaurants to reopen after the disaster, while the original Wolfe's remains closed.
Today, Peristyle is a balancing act between the things that built its reputation and the changes new leadership and personalities inevitably bring. It's an equation that may disappoint those who conjure only halcyon memories of the place, but by any realistic standard, Peristyle remains a destination for creative preparations of exquisite food with room yet to improve and evolve.
The restaurant's wine service in particular is on the way up. The extensive list here is like a leather-bound index to an oenophile's library and the librarian now is Patrick Van Hoorebeck, who had been the maitre d' at the Bistro at Maison de Ville before it closed last summer. Van Hoorebeck is also founder and king of the Krewe of Cork, the wine-themed Carnival club, and is as entertaining in talking about wine as he is adept at picking it out.
Charcuterie is a major specialty of the house and changes constantly. One day featured a terrine of pork and lamb laced throughout with caramelized onion, another brought a duck liver p#226;t. My favorite was essentially the most delicious lamb meatball imaginable. The meat patty was tender as tartare with the pure, herbaceous flavor of good lamb, lightly crusted on the exterior.
The menu includes veal sweetbreads and a $20 serving of seared foie gras, but the appetizer I can't get past is the bowl of steamed mussels, a familiar bistro standard that Wolfe does one better with additions like fennel, sausage, a dash of pastis in the broth and crabmeat that found its way into each spoonful.
The best of the beautiful, petite salads are composed with a jeweler's eye for presentation. A pear salad came with its fruit arranged like petals of stained dark purple after the fruit was poached in pinot noir, which added a compelling counterpoint to the pear's natural sweetness. Another salad had slices of roasted golden beets arrayed like sashimi with a little tangle of greens, red onion and goat cheese. The accompanying boiled shrimp were large and good but seemed to belong to another dish altogether.
Soups are complex and rewarding. A leek and potato soup, for instance, had the body of vichyssoise but was served warm with a trio of fat, poached oysters and calligraphy of vivid green chive oil on top.
Like the mussels, Wolfe's fish amandine was a standard done with greater finesse than normal. Here, the fish was lightly pan-seared drum under an avalanche of sliced almonds, perfectly toasty and lusciously dressed in lemon and butter sauce. Large sea scallops had a regal, crownlike crust around the top and were paired with chanterelles, a satisfying mushroom sauce and fried leeks set over it all like miniature, upscale onion rings.
Squab has long been a specialty at Peristyle, and it remains one for Wolfe. Pan-seared with butter, the exterior was robustly crusted with black pepper biting into the fat just under the bird's skin. The slightly gamy flesh had the burgundy center of medium-rare filet mignon. An ink-dark reduction held bits of foie gras, like bursts of excess in a pool of richness.
When a disappointment arrives, it is usually a case of good food falling short of very high standards rather than a fundamental failure. For instance, the grilled tenderloin was a flawless piece of beef, but served with an espresso cup of cauliflower au gratin and a single wedge of potato, it seemed like a stark, high-end take on meat and potatoes that wanted for some sort of relief from the palette of protein and starch.
Waiters bring an entire separate volume of after-dinner temptations, including many dessert wines and liquors. The selection of Point Reyes cheeses looks impressive but is not always available. Turkish coffee gelato was pleasantly gritty with a million flecks of coffee bean. Molten chocolate cake with tart cranberry delivered the goods for a postprandial cocoa craving, while the white chocolate butter bar -- a hold-over from Wolfe's first restaurant -- is a delicious misnomer shaped like a oversized cupcake rather than a bar.
Service is courteous and warm but there can be groaning gaps between courses. Another dining room problem is the too-close-for-comfort proximity of the banquette-style tables that ring the room and make up most of its seating.
If you can manage a leisurely lunch here, though, any of these shortcomings will seem academic as you inspect your bill. Peristyle serves lunch on Friday only and it is among the great fine-dining bargains of town. Three-course lunches are $24 and two people can easily split the $15 demi-pitchers of wine and carry on the afternoon with a smile.