A longtime favorite reopens its doors

Peerce's Plantation has new owners but many familiar tastes

Sunday Gourmet

December 14, 2003|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

The owners are new, the building has been extensively renovated, but Peerce's Plantation in Phoenix is still a restaurant frozen in time. My guess is that's a good thing for the people who grew up thinking of it as a culinary landmark, who have fond memories of celebrating birthdays and anniversaries there. The new owners bought the restaurant at auction when the former owner went bankrupt and seem to have the attitude "If it wasn't broke (before it was broke), don't fix it."

So don't expect obvious changes. Although the big square bar in the room where you enter has been replaced, it's the same shape, just new and shiny. Everything looks better than I remember from my last visit. There's fresh paint and new carpet, and the faint smell of mold is gone. But the restaurant still has a decidedly old-fashioned air, with its two-tiered dining room, decorative wrought iron and striped-awning ceiling. It shows off to best advantage when the weather is warm, because of its garden decor and view of Loch Raven Reservoir, no longer on display now that it gets dark so early. But the manager does everything he can to make his customers comfortable, including turning up the heat when we asked.

The most significant changes to the restaurant, other than the new bar, are a modernized kitchen, expanded restrooms, and improved handicapped accessibility. Not sexy changes, but important.

The food at the new Peerce's isn't really sexy either, if that matters to you. Crab imperial, crab cakes and prime rib aren't even in the "Traditional Favorites" section of the menu; they appear elsewhere. Perhaps too cutting edge? It's all a matter of degree, I suppose. To some, seafood thermidor -- as opposed to, say, the classic lobster thermidor -- must seem like a quite daring variation.

This is actually a fine dish, with lobster meat, scallops and shrimp broiled in a light, tarragon-scented sauce with a bit of parmesan creating a golden crust. It's not the calorie-laden bechamel made with heavy cream and egg yolks you might expect.

Other dishes haven't been quite so streamlined. Filet Chesapeake -- a Peerce's classic if ever there was one -- has crab imperial balanced on a small filet mignon -- a decadent combination that would have been even better without the blob of too-thick bearnaise on top.

The tender beef was cooked medium rare, exactly as ordered, but the kitchen couldn't bring itself to do the same for the pork loin. This was a fairly tame dish; its blackberry sauce was thankfully not cloyingly sweet, but it didn't have much berry flavor either.

Sometimes when chef Kevin Sonn branches out from Peerce's classics, you applaud the effort but the dish needs a bit of tweaking. Case in point: the half a Cornish game hen served as an appetizer. Deep frying doesn't quite work -- it's a little too reminiscent of the Colonel -- but the accompaniment of roasted corn and peppers and a drizzle of soy-ginger sauce is inspired.

Other times a more trendy dish can't be faulted. A fresh halibut fillet benefits from a crunchy pecan crust, and its sauce, with its hint of mustard, energizes the fish.

Peerce's kitchen is still finding its way. French onion soup is dark and murky, but has a satisfying flavor. Plump and flavorful oysters Rockefeller lurk underneath a blanket of sambuca-flavored spinach and thick bearnaise sauce.

The house-smoked salmon, another Peerce's tradition, was the best of our appetizers. It comes with the classic accompaniments -- chopped egg, onion, capers and toast points -- but it needs nothing else but its own understated seasonings.

As much as the new Peerce's pays homage to its past, it has changed to fit today's lifestyles. Jackets are no longer required; and as pretty as the dining room is by candlelight, it somehow seems more casual than I remember. The menu also acknowledges that people are no longer eating out just on special occasions. Along with the expensive beef and crab dishes, there are plenty of chicken, pasta and fish entrees for under $20. These come with a potato (this evening it was little roasted potatoes) and vegetables (this evening an oddball but appealing green beans and parsnips combo).

Desserts run to the likes of a monstrous, misshapen chocolate eclair, cheesecake, creme brulee and Peerce's variation on Boston cream pie, all decorated with sauces, whipped cream and berries. Not for the faint hearted.

In short, Peerce's is pretty much the same restaurant so many people knew and loved, in spite of the new owners and new chef. My guess is the kitchen will get a little more cutting edge with specials once the shakedown period is over. The waiter told us the chef is waiting to offer them until he sees how the menu does. And speaking of the waiter, that's one of the best things about the new Peerce's -- the staff understands that good service is one old-fashioned value nobody minds a restaurant keeping.

Peerce's Plantation

Food: ** 1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

Where: 12460 Dulaney Valley Road, Phoenix

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $8-$13; main courses, $15-$35

Call: 410-252-3100

Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

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