So where do you take a chef for dinner? Ohio chef Johnny Schulze of gourmet food truck Zydeco Bistro made his way to Texas with his family last week for a little R&R and to get a taste of Houston’s booming restaurant scene. (Note: Johnny is married to my sister.)
Chef Johnny grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and did his culinary training in New Orleans, where he also worked under Andrea Apuzzo, whose Metairie restaurant, Andrea’s, is an institution in the greater New Orleans area. Johnny’s latest project is The Bourbon Street Barrel Room, a gastropub in Cleveland’s historic and hip Tremont neighborhood.
Since Chef Johnny’s expertise is Cajun/Creole and Italian cooking, he would rather dine outside of his professional milieu–the more unusual the better. After several brainstorming sessions, we hit upon something that Johnny had never tried–South African cuisine!! So on a rainy Thursday evening we headed out for our reservation at Peli Peli.
Peli Peli may be the only South African restaurant in Texas, and it is one of only a handful in the whole United States. Executive chef and co-owner Paul Friedman characterizes his menu as South African fusion, reflecting the contributions of the country’s diverse mix of people and cultures, from indigenous tribes to Portuguese, Dutch, Indo-Asian, British, French, Italian and Greek influences.
The first thing you notice as you enter Peli Peli is a huge, acacia tree sculpture which bursts forth from the center of the dining room floor, lit in stripes of colorful light, while near the ceiling the walls are lined with twelve glowing “tents,” one for each of the Old Testament tribes of Israel. The effect is offbeat and entertaining, setting the mood for the food to come.
Those who lived in Houston back in the 1990s remember when Michael Cordua hit the scene with his upscale restaurant concepts, Churrascos and Americas. The South American spices and preparations were daring and exotic at the time. The food was exciting and fun. You can feel that same energy at Peli Peli.
Just as Cordua tirelessly sought to educate his customers and their palates, Friedman makes the rounds of the tables, ready to answer questions or offer a suggestion. Between the garrulous Friedman and his attentive waitstaff, Peli Peli refuses to let its customers go astray–rest assured, you are going to order something you like!
At Friedman’s suggestion, we started with prawn cakes (the restaurant’s take on the ubiquitous crab cake appetizer) and Peli Peli chicken livers, a traditional South African dish in which the livers are sautéed with onion, peppers and spices, then served in a red wine mushroom sauce.
The restaurant offers a very serviceable list of South African and other wines. We chose the Ernie Els 2011 Proprietor’s Blend–full bodied with a nice bouquet, a worthy partner to the night’s fare.
For the main course, Friedman pointed us to three dishes that were easy to share: the Capetown Skillet, filled with shrimp, scallops and calamari, flanked on each side of the pan by two gigantic pan-seared tiger prawns; the Flavors of South Africa platter, which offers a small portion of each of Friedman’s excellent steak dishes; and the South African Mixed Grill, which includes boerwors (a Dutch-based South African sausage), pap and gravy (a polenta-like dish which is topped with an egg), and, the standout of the evening, a succulent grilled lamb chop, marinated in lemon and coated in Italian herbs. The lamb dish as well as a flat iron steak offered on the menu can only be ordered rare or medium rare. Too much cooking time and these cuts become tough and lose their flavor.
Central to the flavors woven into many of the dishes is the hot chili pepper known as the peli peli (a.k.a. piri piri, a.k.a. peri peri). It’s what Friedman does with this pepper, along with other spices and fruits, that makes his food unique. The marinades and sauces transform otherwise ordinary beef, chicken and fish dishes into a new taste experience.
With enthusiastic reviews and lines forming out the door of the original suburban northwest Vintage Park location, a second Peli Peli is set to open soon in the Galleria area.
The owners are now considering a spinoff of their concept into a quick casual franchise, according to Eater Houston. Friedman and his partners definitely have the menu and the moxie to make a go of such a venture, but Chef Johnny and the rest of us at the table loved every minute of the restaurant’s current incarnation.
110 Vintage Park Boulevard, Suite P
Houston, Texas 77070