Where Y'Eat: A Mexican Revolution on Canal Street

Aug 23, 2012

A chef renowned for his upscale Mexican cuisine quietly transforms a Mid-City cafe. Just don't come looking for chips and salsa.

The upscale Mexican cooking of chef Guillermo Peters is nuanced enough to give nouvelle French cuisine a run for its money. Its defining characteristics, after all, are sauces that reveal themselves in compounded layers and a way with chiles that express complexity of flavors instead of just naked heat. For examples, taste the pecan-almond cream and blackberry coulis on his lamb-stuffed poblano pepper or the pasilla chile sauce for his lobster crepes.

But when it comes to just where and how you access this cooking, well, things tend toward extremes. First, starting in the late 1990s, it was at Taqueros, a modest but remarkable taqueria in Kenner you heard about through rumors and found only after pulling a few U-turns along the way. Then, in 2004, Peters went uptown in more ways than one, opening his Taqueros/Coyoacan in a prominent St. Charles Avenue property. Sprawling and handsome, it had a cantina downstairs, a fine-dining program upstairs and a famously didactic, my-way-or-the-highway approach throughout. Woe to he who showed up expecting free chips and salsa here.

Since the demise of Taqueros/Coyoacan, however, the road to Peters’ food has swung back from high profile to hidden. Last summer, he quietly turned up at Eco Café on Canal Street in Mid-City. The name was a reference to the many “green” construction techniques and recycled building materials worked into a renovation that rescued the building from post-Katrina neglect. As a restaurant, however, it was initially stuck rather awkwardly somewhere between a coffee shop and a neighborhood eatery, not quite fitting either category just right.

But over the past year, a transformation has occurred here, creating not just a different restaurant but one that essentially functions as two different restaurants. It is now called Canal Street Bistro. During the day, there are wide-ranging breakfast and lunch menus, while at night things shoot dramatically upscale.

Dinner is when to find scallops seared to a buttery edge, their sweet, tubbly flesh draped with roasted poblano sauce, or chef Peters’ reliable showstopper, his chipotle-stuffed filet mignon topped with a sharp, smoky tomato sauce and mounted on an open-faced quesadilla. The menu is scaled down a bit from the old Taqueros/Coyoacan days, though one luxury touch that still remains is the option to end a meal with a visit from the tequila cart and its high-end collection of Mexico’s most famous liquors poured into bowl-sized snifter glasses.

The tequila cart is always parked in the dining room, even in the mornings when fresh juices provide a more virtuous start to the day, and it gives a clue to Canal Street Bistro’s dual personality. Ordering from the daytime menus, I like the light quinoa salad on the one hand and on the other the not-so-light combo of fried chicken strips and Belgian waffles. Still, chef Peters’ mark on these daytime menus is clear enough. Red chile-braised brisket fills an omelet, for instance, and a crusty Mexican bolillo loaf is filled with pork carnitas for a classic torta sandwich.

There’s nothing to outwardly announce any of this change at Canal Street Bistro, which still looks like a coffee shop. But then, if a Mexican flag were 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.

Canal Street Bistro

3903 Canal St., New Orleans, 504-482-1225