Peche Restaurant in Palisade is well worth the trek

There have been two instances in my life where I’ve performed the very rude act of stopping in the middle of dinner to text my editor, so floored by what I was eating and experiencing that it couldn’t wait.

Incidentally, both dinners were cooked by the same chef, Matthew Chasseur.

Never heard of him? I think he’d prefer it that way, but — sorry Matt — people need to know where to find phenomenal food, and it’s my job to tell them.

So at what Denver hot spot will you find Chasseur? Sorry again. You’re going to have to drive nearly 4 hours west to Palisade, where Chasseur cooks out of an open kitchen off little Main Street, wowing a dining room full of locals and visitors at Pêche Restaurant (Although the restaurant’s name, technically, is “Pêche. Restaurant,” it’s so good, I’ll forgive them for the unnecessary punctuation.)

It’s not often that my head is turned by a restaurant. But at Pêche, it turned, swiveled and whirled, rotating into a hungry pirouette before abandoning my body for that plate of salty, crispy-skin chicken. It would be happy to remain in little Palisade forever, my head, lying on the plate, mouth gaping beside that chicken, tongue eagerly lapping up whatever onion-y juices it generously provided me.

Or, to describe the restaurant without using decapitation, I fell in love with Pêche.

Opening in Palisade was a fairly easy choice for Chasseur and his wife, Ashley, Pêche’s co-owner and general manager. They know the town well, both because they live in nearby Grand Junction with their three young children and because of the time they spent working the kitchen at the High Lonesome Ranch in De Beque, a town so teeny that it makes Palisade look like a metropolis. It was for the job as High Lonesome Ranch’s executive chef that the couple decided to move out to Colorado in the first place, searching for a small town reminiscent of the ones they grew up in in Iowa (Ashley) and New Hampshire (Matt) in which to start and grow their family.

“After about three months of living in the area, we’d started to make friends who were like family to us,” Ashley says. “We knew we wanted to be in an area that was smaller, quaint and up-and-coming, one that had a good community base around it.”

“We knew we wanted to stay here,” Matt says of opening the restaurant in Palisade. “It just seemed natural; they were doing something special here in town.”

At this point, I feel I should interject that Matt and Ashley have restaurant experience that extends a bit beyond your average small town. Or big town. They won’t mention it, but I will: They met working at one of America’s best restaurants, the triple-Michelin-starred Alinea in Chicago, where Matt was the chef de cuisine and Ashley a hostess. (Ashley went on to work as the assistant general manager at Alinea’s sister restaurant, Next.) So, yeah, this uber-talented couple has a triple-Michelin-star pedigree, and while they’re not broadcasting it, you feel it in the hospitality and taste it in the food.

Actually, though, my dinner at Pêche didn’t start flawlessly. In fact, the only reason I can tell you that the dining room is stark and contemporary with the clean walls and hanging Edison lights you’d expect from a restaurant that’s opened in the past couple of years (last August, to be precise) is because it took too long to get our first round of drinks and I had time to look around.

But you don’t care and I don’t care that it took too long because the bread is coming, and it will kick off the best meal you or I have likely had inside a Colorado restaurant in years, if not ever.

Besides the decapitation chicken, other incredible dishes I ate: a puffy disc of pizza dough crowned with grilled Palisade peaches, arugula, Surryano ham, and — most stunning and surprising of all — slices of smooth, firm, marble-like ricotta salata, something I’ve never experienced but want to experience again; and the prettiest, no-rules, whatever-they’ve-got-on-hand salad you’ve ever seen made up of carrot blooms, sunflower petals, basil buds, three different forms of fennel (bulb, stalk and fronds, in case you’re wondering), and a rainbow of carrots, beets and radishes.

There was also the truly special pork belly and egg, sizzled tableside and mixed, oozing that briny yolk, with greens; a pyramid of lamb with sweet, curried roasted cauliflower and pickled golden raisins at the base and sous vide lamb loin and Pêche-made lamb sausage piled atop, all finished with curry butter and served with naan for some carb action; a trio of glass tumblers filled with raw salsa makings, daring the diner to mix the picturesque contents into less cute — but more delicious — dips to decorate the stack of steaming corn tortillas; cider doughnut spheres that melt into apple brandy ice cream; and those Palisade peaches again, starring alongside vanilla ice cream in a beautiful crisp.

“We’re a creatively driven restaurant,” Ashley says. “There isn’t a set cuisine we focus on. We like to use ingredients in a simple, yet intricate way. I use “simple” a lot when I’m describing it. Nothing is overly complex; it’s just done very well. We let the ingredients speak for themselves.”

They speak. Oh, how they speak. Which is interesting, because I’ve never once heard anyone talk about this restaurant, and I’m around people who spend a lot of time talking about restaurants. The problem, if lack of buzz is a problem, is that Pêche is simply outside most of our jurisdictions. It’s far, and we city (or, like myself, suburban) people sometimes forget that there’s life and culture and good food to be had in Colorado beyond the Front Range.

So I asked Matt and Ashley the awkward question of whether they felt they were overlooked because they’re not in Denver metro. And, if so, do they care?

“We didn’t open a restaurant to be celebrities or to be well-known,” Matt says. “This isn’t a game to us. We give it all we got, and we know there are a lot of people out there who want to do this (work in the restaurant industry) for a living. We want to provide the environment for them to do so, an environment in which to push themselves and be great … . That’s what I love about cooking, that we can all come together, maintain this high level of professionalism and execute at a high level. That’s what I love to do.

“PR is great for the restaurant, and it’s great for the investors, but it’s not what we seek in our hearts,” he said.

Does Pêche have dreams of becoming the next great Colorado destination restaurant?  

“Of course, that’s why we’re doing this,” Ashley said. “We have a restaurant because we want people to come eat at our restaurant. But we have a restaurant because we want to provide hospitality, not because we want to be on a list of top restaurants in the state.”

It’s a good lesson for people like me, who occasionally create those sorts of “best lists,” that there’s so much more to the food world than we know. We have to think outside the hype — and, yes, the geography.

If we don’t, we just might miss out on the dinners worth texting our editors about.

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