In Austin, being open for 9 years is practically old guard – Péché, in the heart of what is ironically called the “Warehouse District” on 4th Street, has seen sleek office buildings and apartment towers replace many of those old warehouses in that short amount of time.
Opened almost nine years ago as an Absinthe Bar, Péché had the sleek speak-easy vibe that was perfect timing for 2008. The look was dead on: the room was long and narrow, with distressed brick and an immensely long bar. It was darkly lit with old light fixtures that invited you to a different age. The back wall was filled with hundreds of bottles of spirits and liquors and on the bar, beautiful antique absinthe water spouts finished the look.
Péché was and happily still is popular for an amazing list of over 60 cocktails, some from prohibition times and some modern concoctions that would have been well at home in the 1920’s. The drinks menu is categorized by base: Gin, Whisky, Rum, Tequila, Brandy and Absinthe, with the latter getting the lion’s share of the list. The bulk of the cocktails are infused with a wide variety of house made bitters, fine French liquors and even a house made ginger beer. The bar proudly serves no beers on tap and only one in a can.
Though the love of a good cocktail is well evident by the full bar and the many regulars, Péché’s secret weapon for longevity has been owner Rob Pate and Executive Chef John Lichtenberger’s attention to amazing food.
The menu is firmly anchored with French bistro favorites that make quick decisions impossible. The French Onion soup sounds great, but the Potato soup on the daily menu might be great too. The escargot is amazing, but so is the steak tartar; and so it progresses through the menu—just one hard choice after another.
Last week I invited some friends to join me to try some old favorites and maybe find something new. Though partial to the French 75, I ordered a Fig Manhattan – it was small and pretty with a thick layer of foam that made it look a bit like a dessert. I was a bit embarrassed and thought I might have had made a mistake, then tried it. It was slightly sweet, almost Christmasy with nice hints of spice and vanilla, and the fig foam was delicious. It did, however, hide a decidedly good punch. I realize quickly that here, pretty does not mean weak.
I started dinner with a Classic French Onion soup. It had a deep rich broth with lots of tender onions and a large ‘crouton’ topped with a good amount of baked Gruyere. It was nicely presented in a small crock with bits of browned baked cheese around the rim.
My friends started with the Crab and Grapefruit Salad and the famous Mac and Cheese. The salad was served on a long platter layered with arugula and topped with small slices of pink grapefruit, red bell pepper, and a generous amount of pure white crab meat. It was seasoned with a bit of cracked pepper and finished with a mint vinaigrette. It’s a great combination of flavors and I’m pretty sure that two of these could have been put away easily.
The Mac and Cheese at Péché really should come with a disclaimer – it is addictive and just barely an appetizer. The mac is thick shell-like pasta and the cheese, Italian Grand Padano (similar to Parmigiano Reggiano), is much closer to a rich béchamel. When you add the pieces of duck confit it is enough to call it a meal all on its own.
Prepared for excess, we moved onto entrées of Braised Short Ribs and the Grilled Niman Ranch Pork Chop.
Having had the Short Ribs recently, I ordered the Pork Chop and was happy to find it seared nicely, tender (though quite thick), and importantly for me, not salty. The sautéed kale and black-eyed peas were a nice and light compliment. I rounded out the meal with a solid Regis Bouvier Burgundy.
The short ribs were slow-cooked to very tender, served with a savory sauce on a bed of duck fat mashed potatoes. This is a hearty dish and following the Mac and Cheese is a pretty good challenge.
I was determined to finish the evening with one of Péché’s well-known desserts, pecan pie, which recently made news as one of “Five Outstanding Pecan Pies in Austin”. Péché’s version is a thin tart artfully served with a scoop of ice cream and a fine crumble. Given that pecan pie is very sweet, the modest serving size was spot on.
My favorite for the evening was another Péché favorite, the crème brûlée. Over the years, I’ve liked crème brûlée less and less as more places kept upping both the fat and the sugar content.
Péché’s version was again good on portion size and perfect in flavor and texture, the profusion of tiny vanilla bean seeds emphasizing the attention paid to the quality and flavor.
We finished the evening with a few more cocktails – a couple of classic Sazerac’s (Rye, Sugar, Peychaud’s bitters, Absinthe Rinse), and a Dark and Stormy (Rum, Lime, House Ginger Beer).
With a perfect evening of French comfort food and well-made drinks it would have been wonderful to have wandered out to a cold evening – but alas that is the one thing Rob and his team couldn’t control.
Address: 208 W 4th St, Austin, TX 78701
Hours: Mon – FRI 4PM–2AM · SAT, SUN 5PM–2AM
Phone: (512) 494-4011
OTL Features Editor