Paul Friedman deals in big, broad strokes, more impresario than restaurateur. Indeed, you almost fear for him when reading the menu at South African restaurant Peli Peli—giant tiger prawns peeled tableside by gloved servers?!—or watching trays of espetada being rushed into the dining room, the long skewers of beef swinging wildly, hangman-style, from hooks. This is dinner as extravaganza, as spectacular illusion, David Blaine territory. And Friedman, not unlike Blaine, pulls off the trick time and again.
My encounter with the chef’s work was occasioned by the March opening of Peli Peli in the Galleria, a spinoff of Friedman’s wildly popular Vintage Park establishment in Cypress that's been delighting hordes of Houstonians since 2009. Indeed, in May, TripAdvisor diners crowned it No. 1 among Houston’s 7,511 places to eat. I am in agreement with them. A meal at Friedman’s place is soul-stirring, utterly delicious, the stuff of legends, as is the fateful story of how Peli Peli came to be, which Friedman tells in a video posted on his website, and which I will summarize in brief.
“When I was 12 years old, I got to see a whole pride of lions under a tree. It was the acacia tree,” intones the chef in crypto-Biblical mode, explaining why Peli Peli’s dining room in Vintage Park ended up with a giant acacia, and why Friedman had to look at 56 different spaces before finding one with a high ceiling in a good location. As it happens, he found it just in time for a storm to flood the space, delaying the build-out for a year, a year in which the economy tanked, and he and his wife divorced.
Jobless, penniless, he got down on his knees in the middle of his good location with a high ceiling and prayed for God’s help, he tells us. Within minutes, a construction worker arrived at the door saying that he had just then been praying himself, in a church, when he received a message from on high. Build Paul Friedman a restaurant, the Almighty had said, further burnishing his reputation as a loving God, as well as a foodie.
As I say, the stuff of legends, not to mention the most compelling literary farrago to come out of Africa since Isak Dinesen.
There’s an acacia inside the Galleria Peli Peli too, albeit a smaller one. The tree sits behind a semicircular reservation desk at the entrance, quite as if someone had potted it with the hostesses. But that’s the only underwhelming thing about Friedman’s new place. You’ll be wowed from the moment you enter the dining room, witnessing thousands of tiny lights winking from behind a warped metal ceiling, or when bellying up to the bar, which is decorated with giant David Garibaldi speed paintings of such notables as Jesus and Nelson Mandela. Everything from that moment forward, from the cocktails—especially the dizzying, wonderful South African Gentleman, an Old Fashioned newly fashioned with espresso vodka—to the mushrooms stuffed with Chilean sea bass will follow through on Peli Peli’s promise to both astound and satisfy.
Not unlike Houston’s food, South Africa’s is something of a hybrid, and Friedman’s menu is a paean to the powers of mishmash. There are the comfort foods, like his juicy, Parmesan-dusted flatbread, or Friedman’s pap and gravy, its bed of corn polenta topped by aromatic boerewors, a coriander- and clove-spiced beef sausage. Between those and Peli Peli’s bobotie—the sort of thing that beef potpie might become if it ever decided to be adventurous and cavort with mango chutney—you might find yourself waxing nostalgic for a Johannesburg you never knew.
Friedman is equally expert at the fancy stuff, whether wrapping his scallops in bacon, plating six hunks of steak with six different sauces (Flavors of South Africa, as it’s called), or turning out the aforementioned espetada in which each morsel of beef, temperately seasoned with garlic, is as soft as a marshmallow. And while everything on the menu is at least a little unlike anything else you’ve ever tasted, you never feel like Friedman’s going for that. Intuition and palate drive everything. One bite of his sautéed calamari and you’ll wonder why anyone ever deep-fries it, one mouthful of his gumbo and you’ll wonder if there are Cajuns in Cape Town.
When a big restaurant is led by a big personality, discriminating diners get suspicious, often rightfully so. Usually, the experience is one of gimmicky presentations and odd flavor combinations employed to provide cover for a talentless kitchen. Which is too bad, because there truly are some special chefs out there, fabulists capable of living up to their fables, with the skill and genius and arrogance to bring something completely new to the table, which is to say something new and damn good. Most are not special. Most serve food that makes you feel nothing more than full. And yet we continue to eat out, again and again, tirelessly searching for that rare soul who will electrify our palates, for those special evenings, those 1-in-7,511 moments.