STORY WRITTEN BY LEN LEAR
For Digital First Media
Chef/restaurateur Peter Woolsey is only in his 30s, but he has had to do more shuffling than a blackjack dealer. In August of 2008, after two years of nightmarish twists and turns, including a belated opening because an electrician had faxed the necessary forms to the wrong phone number, Woolsey opened Bistrot La Minette, a charming French twist at 623 S. 6th St. in Philly’s Queen Village section.
Just one month after the opening, the national economy collapsed, and Woolsey’s nest egg was beginning to look more like an egg omelette. At that point, Peter may have been justified in repeating what a comedian once said to me: “Well maybe life just isn’t for everyone.”
Woolsey was raised in West Philly and then Lower Merion before moving to France at age 21 to study cooking at the famed Le Cordon Bleu. He then worked for two years at the three-star, Michelin-rated restaurant, Lucas Carton. A confirmed Francophile, Peter married a French-born photographer, Peggy Baud (whose photos of French scenes adorn the walls of the restaurant), and decided he would return to Philly and eventually open an authentic French bistro here.
But first Peter paid his dues by working for Georges Perrier at Le Mas Perrier in Wayne and for Stephen Starr at Striped Bass and Washington Square. In 2006 he discovered the building at 623 S. 6th St. that was formerly the site of a fabric warehouse. “La Minette,” by the way, is a French term of endearment that literally means “pussycat.” (It’s also the nickname of Peter’s sister-in-law.) And “Bistrot” is not a typo. It is the spelling one finds more often in France, although it’s almost always seen as “Bistro” in the U.S.
The highly regarded tres French gem has managed to survive the recession in Queen Village, so much so that an emboldened Woolsey recently opened a second restaurant that is as different from Bistrot La Minette as lightning is from a lightning bug. The follow-up venture is La Peg, a contemporary brasserie located inside the FringeArts building at 140 N. Columbus Blvd. (at Race Street) in Old City, just across from the Race Street Pier. Near the new Spruce Street Harbor, it is also part of the city’s riverfront district that has been developing incrementally for decades.
The cavernous dining room with 45-foot ceilings, glazed brick and mammoth Palladian windows provides panoramic views of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. The only area restaurant I know of that has a similar skeleton is Red Owl Tavern, 5th and Market streets. There is a huge mural showing the building’s past history as a high-pressure pump station for the city’s fire department.
The food at La Peg (named for Woolsey’s wife) is, you might say, casual French with lots of American influence. There is also an outdoor terraced patio and beer/seafood garden which is bound to be a serious customer magnet, including tourists from nearby hotels, in warm weather months. Until the end of August, the patio also featured a Wednesday night movie series, showing classic comedies like “Airport” and “Dr. Strangelove.”
The reasonably priced menu has some real stars. For example, the crunchy portabello on a brioche roll with napa cabbage, slaw and fries ($13) has so much balance, it could be an Olympic gymnast. And the ginger soy dressing that accompanied it was an absolute gastro indulgence.
And the wild mushroom flatbread with caramelized onion, crème fraiche, arugula and morel and chanterelle mushrooms ($16) offered familiar flavors that sang in true harmony. Desserts are Woolsey’s specialty since he started out as a pastry chef, and his zephyr-light sorbets — blackberry, blood orange and white peach on our visit ($6) — were taste sensations.
I would be remiss if I did not mention Diane Barnes, who has to be one of the most bubbly, personable servers anywhere. She said, “I love this job,” and it shows.
La Peg also features live entertainment, e.g., “Get Pegged,” a satirical, cheeky cabaret show once a month, and a “hot jazz” ensemble performs live every second Friday. And a daily Happy Hour features $5 food specials, a $5 rotating cocktail and $3 red and white house wines and all draft beers. The night we were there, there was a large animated crowd cheering as they watched the third Clinton/Trump debate on a giant TV screen.
For more information, call 215-375-7744 or visit www.lapegbrasserie.com