Think of this as yet another chapter in the melodrama of dinner at Peerce's Plantation. At least this one has a happy ending.
For those of you who aren't up to speed, a quick reprise: When I reviewed Peerce's last June, I had mediocre food and bad service. I wasn't surprised to hear that the place, once one of the area's premier restaurants, had filed for bankruptcy protection last October.
Then early this year owner Peerce Lake made a smart move. He hired local celebrity chef Michael Rork as a consulting chef. Rork has his own restaurant in St. Michaels, but he stayed long enough to bring in Michael Gettier to run Peerce's kitchen. Gettier was available because he had recently closed his well-respected but financially troubled restaurant, M. Gettier's Orchard Inn in Towson.
I like Gettier's cooking and his style -- although it wasn't clear to me how much that style would come into play at Peerce's, a restaurant that has never veered far from the rich and heavy Continental cuisine it first started serving in the '70s. (Gettier, although French-trained, has always approached food with a lighter hand.)
On my most recent visit, I found that things have changed dramatically for the better. That's the good news. But Peerce's needs to rethink its basic concept if it wants to fill all those tables night after night. As it stands now, Peerce's is still a special-occasion or expense-account restaurant, with most entrees in the $20s and some in the $30s.
And this is special-occasion food. People have so much money these days a lot of them probably are willing to drop in after work and spend $50 a person. But I'm not sure if after working out on the StairMaster they'll want to indulge in a filet mignon and a crab cake with bearnaise sauce, with a Jack Tar potato on the side, unless it's somebody's anniversary.
As for atmosphere, Peerce's country-charming main dining room hasn't been updated. You want young and funky, go to Canton. You want old-fashioned and romantic, Peerce's Plantation is as good a choice as any.
The two-tiered, glass-enclosed dining room, which overlooks rolling lawn and a stand of evergreens, is decorated with striped awnings, white trellises and fairy lights. You feel as if you're eating on a porch. Often this chilly spring a fire has been flickering in the fireplace, and candles glow on each formally set table.
It's not exactly the sort of place where you'd expect someone to urge you to order the pheasant sausage for an appetizer, but I'm going to do just that. Its homey appearance belies the sophistication of the flavors, with overlays of hazelnut and cognac. Greens and a bit of apple puree offer contrasts of taste and texture.
Too substantial a starter for you? Peerce's escargots are a happy second choice -- unabashedly presented as an extravagant excuse for garlic butter, wine and sauteed wild mushrooms.
Of course, Peerce's signature house-smoked salmon is always an option. It's quite salty, but stylishly presented in tissue-thin slices with horseradish cream, capers and onions. Traditional toast points come on the side.
Only the soup of the day, clam chowder, was a letdown. Imagine a cross between vichyssoise and clam chowder -- an interesting idea, but not one that worked for me.
The current menu at Peerce's still says early spring to me: food that is more comforting than light and airy. Take the "roasted poussin with bacon and leek." Our entrees were slow in coming, I think because the whole baby chicken needed roasting. But when the chicken arrived, it was worth every minute of the wait.
Encased in a crisp gold skin, the plump flesh fairly burst with juices. The small whole chicken lay on a bed of cabbage braised with a bit of sausage. It had a sort of half-sauce, half-filling of softly melting cheese with chopped leeks and bacon. It sounds heavy, but it wasn't.
On the current menu Gettier often combines cheeses, most notably Boursin and Brie, with meat or seafood. A veal chop roasted with Boursin, the triple-cream cheese sparked with pepper, would have been heavenly if not for its vein of fat. But an impeccably fresh fillet of salmon, braised just past rare and paired with Smithfield ham and a bit of Brie, had no flaws.
Onions, too, are a recurrent theme of this menu. Sweet onions are sauteed and laid in ringlets on fresh asparagus (which, when you think about it, is an odd combination, but not a bad one). Caramelized onions turn up on tournedos, and crisp fried onions decorate the rib eye steak. Even the soft, juicy sweetness of spring's first soft shell crabs is contrasted with crisp curls of leek.
Peerce's dessert tray was in a state of flux the night we were there. Gettier's last restaurant was known for the desserts his wife created, but she was out of the country.
The desserts we ordered weren't made in house, but they were more than respectable: a soft, fresh cake with a citrusy butter cream and an irresistible concoction that offered several textures of chocolate, each more beguiling than the last.
Don't try to escape the rich Continental thing at Peerce's; it just won't work. One of us wanted something light, so she ordered a blackberry sorbet. The kitchen garnished it with a great dollop of whipped cream.
Where: 12450 Dulaney Valley Road, Phoenix
Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner
Prices: Appetizers, $7.50-$9.95; main courses, $21.50-$33.50.