RATING |

This has been quite the year for attempts to marry serious restaurants and performing-arts venues of all persuasions, and each has had its own merits. But I'm betting that patrons of Volvér at the Kimmel Center are unlikely to encounter the scene we did at La Peg in the new FringeArts building: a pair of performers bounding buck naked through the back hallway near the restrooms.

Ah, the perks of avant-garde theater! No need to even buy a ticket to the Fringe's When Private Parts Go Public.

Then again, early visitors to La Peg got a chance to witness a chef with his pants down, too.

Figuratively, of course. But that's pretty much what happened in late August when Peter Woolsey debuted his updated French brasserie inside the soaring 1903 brick fortress of a former city pump house on Columbus Boulevard. While the Fringe's new performance space hummed along (in various states of dress) on the other side of a movable wall, Woolsey, who'd previously won a loyal following for the classic French flavors at his cozier Bistrot La Minette off South Street, was struggling in this 100-seater to debut a rambling, sometimes stumbling menu of small plates with a more modern French twist.

My first nibbles early on did not bode well. Beef tartare, one of the big trends of 2014, came with a novel Spanish accent of cuminy chorizo spice. But it was so carelessly chopped that an inch-long ribbon of raw beef slithered disconcertingly off my forkful of otherwise finely minced meat. An oxtail pho (another trendy dish) was far too sweet with cinnamon and star anise, and its unwieldy garnish of a beef-filled wonton had already burst.

These were good reminders of why I typically don't visit restaurants in the infancy of their early weeks. But this pioneering venture for the nascent riverfront district is such a curiosity, it merited a small preview peek.

The space is unlike any other in town, a bi-level corner hall with 45-foot ceilings, century-old glazed bricks, postindustrial iron accents, and huge Palladian windows that gaze up from the foot of the Ben Franklin Bridge. It's an inspiring new vantage on Philadelphia both past and future, as this relic of the city's early-20th-century infrastructure has been repurposed as an essential link for our 21st-century re-embrace of the waterfront. With activity along the Delaware River finally stirring to life (Spruce Street Harbor, Race Street Pier), La Peg has the potential to become an anchor for hungry new visitors - especially when the terraced beer garden patio that flanks its Race Street side is in full warm-weather (and grilling) glory.

Finding the right tone in the kitchen, however, has been a slow process. But over the course of three visits, it has clearly been trending in the right direction.

By my second visit in late October, the service staff began to pick up its game (coincidentally, a copy of Charlie Trotter's front-house classic Lessons in Service was open on the host stand).

And there were several worthy flavors. I couldn't resist extra slices of the crusty house-baked baguette to soak in garlicky Chartreuse butter beneath the escargot. An oyster trio came with three smart savory flourishes - lime and chili oil; smoked cream and salmon roe; a lemony tarragon puree. A small dish of pork carbonnade was just the kind of slow-stewed bistro comfort, rich with beer over croutons of aromatic pain d'epices, to ballast against the coming chill. The Fringe burger was memorable, topped with bacon-onion marmalade and a molten ooze of Delice de Bourgogne.

A number of problems persisted, though, primarily stemming from the menu's awkward stab at a small-plate concept, resulting in a rush of small dishes that cluelessly crowded our table within just a few minutes of ordering. When the entrees finally arrived after a long wait, the kitchen displayed little finesse, scorching half the salmon over lentils, overcooking the black bass, letting the prefrozen frites go oily alongside uninspired steak.

By my final visit in December, though, a shift to a more traditional app-entree menu format, and a subtle reversion to a more classic French repertoire, seemed to have smoothed out most kinks in chef de cuisine Nicholas Bazik's kitchen.

A crock of French onion soup offered timeless satisfaction, the rich, not-too-sweet dark broth sealed beneath molten Comté. A French mince of salmon tartare was brightened with citrus vinaigrette, pomegranate seeds, and shaved pickled beets. Creamy macaroni gratin was fragrant with the pungency of Morbier.

The half chicken was superbly flavorful beneath its butter-basted golden skin, with sauteed spinach over a stripe of mashed potatoes tawny with brown butter. Wine-braised rabbit (more tender than on my previous visit) was shredded into a lemony-bright tomato confit sauce over handmade pasta. The duck confit was a shade dry, but the skin was magnificently crisp and I loved the cranberry beans touched with an exotic pinch of French vadouvan curry.

A choucroute garnie that my colleague Rick Nichols complained bitterly about in early October had benefited from a worthy revamp, the caraway-scented kraut deep brown from a beer braise and festooned with roasted brats, slab bacon, pork shoulder confit, and a slice of blood pudding I would have adored if it hadn't been oversalted. A satisfying vegetarian offering of ravioli stuffed with earthy celery-root puree in a creamy walnut sauce proved that Bazik's range isn't limited to classics.

La Peg's work-in-progress is hardly done. The drink program is strong, with a list of 80-some beers (as befits a brasserie), but the Gallic-themed cocktails were average and the lack of French wine options (not a single red by the glass!) was disappointing.

La Peg also joins the long list of places that have tried, but failed, to serve a properly ripened Époisses.

The dessert course had its own small hiccups (overly warmed crème brûlée; grainy sorbet), but more than made amends with the layered indulgence of a chocolate mousse cake. A Paris-Brest pastry puff stuffed with praline cream over dark chocolate sauce was another surefire winner - a notably classic finale for a venue that's otherwise all about avant-garde. But then, of course, there was that eventful walk to the restrooms . . . .

Next week, Craig LaBan reviews the year in bells.
Inquirer critic Craig LaBan hosts an online chat 2 p.m. Tuesdays at philly.com/labanchats.