At Peli Peli, Showmanship Sometimes Overwhelms Essentials Like Service

On South African restaurant Peli Peli’s website, there’s a diner testimonial for the Portuguese skewered-beef dish called espetada: “OMG. If you don’t have anything else on the menu, you have at least got to have this. Words fail me.” We agree with the sentiment and can offer some help with the words.

The skewer of thick chunks of seared beef fillet dangles from a metal framework, dripping garlicky meat juices on the platter of side dishes below. There’s a well of more warm, chopped garlic at the top of the skewer. A generous, deep green pile of sautéed baby spinach (with more garlic) and a neat scoop of the mash of carrots and potatoes, called carrot bredie, benefit from the infusion of jus dripping off the beef. How popular is this dish? During a Thursday night dinner in Peli Peli Galleria’s raucous bar area, every single booth along the back wall sported a skewer of espetada. A hearty Portuguese beef dish served in a South African restaurant in a posh shopping mall? Welcome to Houston, the world’s most wonderful melting pot.

There’s a mystery to unravel, though. Peli Peli is a South African restaurant, so why is it featuring a Portuguese dish? Portugal is near Morocco — northern Africa — adjacent to Spain and separated from the African continent by the Gulf of Cádiz. Regardless, a South African restaurant including a Portuguese dish isn’t farfetched. The Portuguese first explored the coast of southern Africa in the late 15th century and, to this day, that history remains a significant part of South African culture. As far as the espetada goes, it’s a love match for many Houston diners. As cosmopolitan and diverse as we are, we still revere our cow-town heritage and just love our beef.

There are very few South African restaurants in the United States, and Houston is fortunate to have had a prominent one for the past seven years. The original Peli Peli, in Vintage Park, is, at a bare minimum, a visual spectacle that everyone should see at least once. It’s inspired by chef Paul Friedman’s unique perspective as both a South African and a Messianic Jew. There’s a huge representation of an acacia tree in the middle of the main dining room, and the 12 Tribes of Israel are represented by labeled, back-lit curtained panels around the room.

Just as much of a visual spectacle is the new Peli Peli in the Galleria, with a fresh take on the design that is more sophisticated and less literal. Instead of a sculptural acacia tree in the center of the room, a vast array of computer-controlled LEDs from above is meant to evoke the experience of being underneath the canopy. The lights segue from one color of the rainbow to the next. One evening they were all blue, which made it look as if the staff might whisk away the tables and chairs and convert the place into a nightclub at any moment. During lunch, there was a warmer color that transitioned from red to orange to yellow. As at the original location, there are Bibles hidden around the restaurant (perhaps to transmit osmotically a bit of virtuousness to patrons and staff alike).

Sometimes it all just seems too over-the-top and too desperate to impress. For comparison, consider restaurants that impress not with colored lights but with white tablecloths, impeccable service and beautifully placed dishes. Peli Peli’s work doesn’t even have an opportunity to speak for itself. It’s common to hear servers insist to guests that everything is delicious. Everything a diner orders is “an excellent choice” or the server’s “favorite.” The menu is delineated with every award any dish has won, no matter how big or small. (Zest In The West Winner! Wine & Food Week Award Winner! Chef Of Chefs Award Winner!)

Peli Peli just has no idea how to play it cool. It’s like the guy who won’t stop calling six times a day after a first date or the girl who heads out to a club wearing entirely too much makeup and jewelry. It’s not that either is bad — it’s just that they’re too desperate to impress with the wrong things.
Visuals and self-promotion can be important components of dining, but quality, service, value and consistency are more highly valued. These are the areas where Peli Peli struggles, and perhaps that’s why everything feels like a sales pitch. There’s some persuading needed.

Some dishes, like the espetada, are the equals of the magnificent interior design. Others are sad mockeries of what they’re supposed to be, like the unseasoned osso buco hidden under an ugly pile of nondescript vegetable mush with a sharp, broken shank bone jutting out the side. That’s unforgivable for a $36 dish.

It was ordered alongside kingklip, a fish rarely seen in the United States that produces thick white fillets similar to cod or haddock. The planks of fish were thick, firm, perfectly cooked and cleverly topped with chopped scallops. However, the fish was so salty that it would have been a joy to send half of the seasoning over to the bland lamb shank.

There should be a list of commandments for restaurant service. Here’s one: Thou shall not bring a customer something different from what was ordered without first making sure the substitution meets with his or her approval.

One evening the restaurant was out of biltong, a delectable South African dried beef generously sprinkled with crumbly ground coriander seeds. (Coriander is far too underrated as a seasoning.) That’s not really an issue, since Peli Peli clearly states on the menu where the biltong is listed as an individual item that it’s not always available.

However, it also comes on the appetizer sampler platter along with cream cheese and chive-stuffed peppadew peppers (sweet, mild, red pickled peppers that Peli Peli serves alongside practically every entrée) and boerewors, or dense, meaty “farmer’s sausage” made with a high percentage of beef.

Our server never notified us that the restaurant was out of the biltong and it wouldn’t be on our sampler platter. He showed up with the order, explained that the kitchen had decided to substitute a skewer of chicken sosaties, dropped the platter on the table and left. Wait a minute. Does the customer paying $25 for the appetizer platter get a vote, or only the kitchen? It was tempting to send the entire platter back simply for the lack of consideration. Fortunately, the biltong was available again on a subsequent visit and the thin, dried wafers of sirloin were just as tender and inviting as remembered.

Next was the wine fiasco. When asked for a by-the-glass wine recommendation, the server immediately pointed to the most expensive one on the menu, a $19 glass of Boekenhoutskloof The Chocolate Block with a Wine Spectator rating of 87 and an average bottle retail price of $35. That got him shooed off, and we settled on a reasonable Pinot Noir from Willamette Valley that would go decently with lamb and not jar the gentle flavors of a fish entrée. It was also available by the glass, so it seemed reasonable to try it before investing in a whole bottle.

The server had to “ask his manager” when we asked if we could get a small taste. Eventually, a sommelier came over, sealed bottle and corkscrew in hand. We explained, again, that we wanted a taste first. When we got one, the wine was warm — not just room temperature, but warm. We said we’d buy a bottle if he’d give it a quick chill to bring the temperature down first.

That was the last we saw of the bottle. We asked that it be brought back when the entrées showed up, and it never came. The somm reappeared when we were two-thirds done with the entrées and apologized, saying that Peli Peli was short-staffed and that was why our server never returned. At that point, there wasn’t even time to polish off a whole bottle of wine, so we agreed to simply take a glass each. The sommelier was amiable, and even comped the wine. Never let it be said that Peli Peli doesn’t do its best to try to make things right when something goes wrong.

It may be surprising, but South African restaurant Peli Peli makes a real good chicken-fried steak — usually. Unfortunately, even though the one at the Galleria had beautiful, golden-brown breading just like the Vintage Park one, it turned out not to be cooked all the way through. Under the surface, the coating remained floury and raw. (Peli Peli comped that as well after the issue was pointed out.)

The experiences at Peli Peli were either slow or chaotic enough to put it — for now — in a category of restaurants to visit when time is not of the essence. If service and wine knowledge are important, head to nearby Caracol, Masraff’s or Etoile, which are simply more sophisticated and wise in this area. Otherwise, go to Peli Peli for tender biltong, garlicky espetada, fine side dishes and a grand spectacle.

Peli Peli Galleria
5085 Westheimer, Suite B2515, 281?257?9500. Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays and Sundays; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

Gumbo (cup) $6
Biltong bowl $13
South African sampler $25
Chicken-fried steak $19
Espetada (lunch) $19
Espetada (dinner) $39
Lamb osso buco $36
Kingklip and scallop $37
Sticky toffee pudding $12
Melktart $12
Biltong Bloody Mary $12
Coffee $2.75