Chef Guillermo Peters' upscale Mexican cooking is nuanced enough to give nouvelle French cuisine a run for its money. Its defining characteristics are sauces that reveal themselves in multiple layers and his use of chilis to express complex flavors instead of naked heat. For examples, taste the pecan-almond cream and blackberry coulis on his lamb-stuffed poblano pepper or the pasilla chili sauce on lobster crepes.
But when it comes to where and how New Orleanians have found his cooking, the answers tend toward extremes. Starting in the late 1990s, it was at Taqueros, a modest, not-easy-to-find but remarkable taqueria in Kenner. In 2004, Peters moved uptown, opening Taqueros/Coyoacan in the prominent St. Charles Avenue location now occupied by Irish House. Sprawling and handsome, it had an inexpensive cantina downstairs, a fine-dining program upstairs and a famously didactic, my-way-or-the-highway approach throughout. Woe to whoever showed up expecting free chips and salsa.
Since the demise of Taqueros/Coyoacan, however, the road to Peters' food has swung back from high profile to hidden. Last summer, Peters quietly turned up at Eco Cafe, a Mid-City spot then struggling with a concept awkwardly straddling the divide between coffee shop and neighborhood restaurant.
Over the past year, Peters and restaurant owner Monica Ramsey have transformed the place, creating not just a different restaurant but one that functions as two different restaurants. Now called Canal Street Bistro, it has wide-ranging and moderately priced breakfast and lunch menus, but dinner is dramatically upscale.
Dinner brings scallops seared to a buttery edge, their sweet flesh draped with roasted poblano sauce. Peters' reliable showstopper is a chipotle-stuffed filet mignon topped with sharp, smoky tomato sauce and mounted on an open-faced quesadilla. The menu is scaled down slightly from Taqueros/Coyoacan, both in choices and prices, though diners can end a meal with a visit from the tequila cart. This wheeled luxury is always parked in the dining room, even in the mornings when fresh juices provide a more virtuous start to the day.
Breakfast and lunch are where Canal Street Bistro wears its old Eco Cafe colors, though service is tighter and the menu more coherent than before. I like the light quinoa salad and the not-so-light combo of fried chicken strips and Belgian waffles. Still, Peters' mark on the daytime menus is clear. Red chili-braised brisket fills an omelet and a crusty bolillo loaf is filled with carnitas for a classic Mexican torta.
There's nothing to outwardly announce any of this change at Canal Street Bistro, which still looks like a coffee shop. But if a Mexican flag was mounted outside, people might start asking for chips and salsa. There are plenty of other places for that, and at least at dinner, Canal Street Bistro is unlike anywhere else in town.