Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Review revisited: Péché

Sin and redemption at an absinthe bar in the Warehouse District

Mike Sutter
If you want to try the coq au vin, delectable chicken atop a mushroom bread pudding, you'd better hurry. The dish will make way soon for another chicken entree. At top are scallops with brown-butter potatoes and green beans.

As an ordained clergyman from One of Those Churches in the Back of a Magazine, Rob Pate can pour you a drink or pronounce you man and wife. Take your pick.

Motivated by an adjective in my review of his restaurant in February 2009, the owner of Péché became a minister. That adjective was 'evangelical,' and I used it to describe his powers of persuasion behind the bar. The rest of the story wasn't quite as inspirational.

My biggest complaint at the time was that the food at Péché (peh-SHAY) wasn't keeping up with the bar, which was already starting to stretch beyond its novelty birth as an absinthe den. A halfhearted menu with a second-tier French accent seemed like it was just grafted on, bobbling even a brasserie standard like coq au vin. Instead of a meat-and-bone marriage of bird and braising technique, the dish was a smooth-textured stew of undeveloped intentions. And a trio of surf-and-turf sliders is no way to make people take your cooking seriously.

So along with taking up the cloth, Pate changed directions in the kitchen, bringing in executive chef Jason Dodge, who had spent five years sharpening his skills at Enoteca Vespaio.

The sliders are gone, and the chicken ($22) is an unapologetic flex of muscle and bone and crispy skin, riding a magic carpet of earthy mushroom bread pudding to the next level. That coq au vin will leave the menu in a few weeks, replaced by a sous vide chicken dish Pate calls 'amazing.'

With Dodge doing sous vide and making his own charcuterie, the kitchen can finally look the bar right in the eye and say, 'Bring it on.'

That charcuterie plate ($13) brings it on with thin slices of cured duck breast the color of sunset striated with fine ribbons of white, creamy duck liver mousse and an aromatic and chunky rabbit rillette, the white meat glistening with delicate touches of fat. It's a sinful indulgence, the savory counterpart to the sweeter liquid sins coming from the cocktail crew.

Péché will put you in opposition to a breed of cocktail purists. In the charmingly single-minded book 'The Hour,' for example, author Bernard DeVoto delineated some midcentury rules for the hard stuff. Rule No. 11: 'Martinis, slugs of whiskey, highballs. Nothing else. You don't care to know anybody who wants anything else.'

Rules are for the imagination-impaired, and Pate is coolly brazen enough to walk up to your table and challenge your drinks of habit. He will proselytize about rye whiskey and the magical astringency of gin. You'll order drinks like the Bee's Knee with honey and lemon (gin is the stinger), or even the inscrutable Bronx Bomber, a medicine-show potion of gin, absinthe and espresso.

Pate also gave us a taste of custom sweet red vermouth and indulged a request for house-made ginger beer served not as a mixer, but by itself in a tall, cool glass. Swirled with honey-colored clouds, it's a nonalcoholic sensory intoxicant, a spicy-tongued retort to DeVoto's Rule No. 4: 'No ginger ale - I said, no ginger ale.' God bless the rebel spirit.

Dodge rebels in his own way by letting the fruits of the market - not the strictures of a genre - set his menu. The result is a daily blackboard menu that might feature lamb shoulder ravioli, monkfish fritters, madeira-braised rabbit with house-made pappardelle pasta or even beef marrow bones.

'Jason does everything in-house,' Pate said, including the butchering. 'All our chickens, all our pigs, all our lambs, all come in whole. All our fish comes in whole,' Pate said.

Along with the blackboard specials, the standing menu on a recent night included scallops ($26) on three mounds of mashed potatoes with crisp green beans and a savory brown jus. As much as I liked those scallops - nicely plated with a firm, tawny sear - I still had value issues with the dish. I'd want four instead of three at that price . Putting that aside, I appreciated the flavors and textures here, the creamy potatoes, the snap and color of the beans, none of it overly salted.

The recurring menu features other seafood dishes, plus steak, sandwiches and French bar favorites like mussels with fries ($14), a big bowl with garlicky broth, toasted bread and a cone of thick, hot fries with mayonnaise for dipping. That dish, along with the charcuterie plate and all the sandwiches and appetizers, is included in a happy-hour schedule (details in the box on page 4) that knocks them to half-price, lubricated by $5 cocktails.

Not a bad way to explore Rev. Pate's church of conspicuous consumption.

msutter@statesman.com; 912-5902

Péché

208 W. Fourth St. 495-9669,

www.pecheaustin.com.

Rating: 7.9 out of 10

Hours: 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Monday-Friday. 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday-Sunday.

Prices: Starters $6.50 (pommes frites) to $14 (mussels with fries). Salads $8-$16. Sandwiches $9-$16, including a vegetarian choice with roasted vegetables, chickpea and olive tapenade. Main courses $14 (Péché burger with onion rings) to $32 (New York strip with asparagus and potatoes). Desserts $8-$9, plus a cheese plate for $13.

Payment: All major cards.

Alcohol: Beer, wine and cocktails, heavy on the cocktails, especially the ones with gin and rye whiskey. Nine kinds of absinthe. A dozen wines by the glass, $7-$14. Five whites, 12 reds and four sparklers by the bottle, $23-$350, with a handful in the $30 range.

Wheelchair access: Call ahead.

Happy hour: Worth its own category. Appetizers, sandwiches and more than 20 cocktails are half-price from 4 to 7 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and all day Sunday and Monday. Take your first steps on the road to madness with a $5 glass of Pernod absinthe blended with water poured over a sugar cube.

What the rating means: The 10-point scale for casual dining is an average of weighted scores for food, service, atmosphere and value.