When we think of places in Houston to taste innovative cocktails, the Galleria isn't usually at the top of the list. But Peli Peli, best known for the showmanship of its hanging espetada skewer and over-the-top brunches, is suddenly a worthy drink destination. Newly appointed bar director Edwin Hui, most recently of Hunky Dory, just debuted an exceptionally thoughtful bar menu that takes diners on an adventure that has very little to do with sipping at the mall.
Using his own tonics, tinctures and mists, Hui, who came of age in the restaurant business thanks to a mother who's a partner in both Aka Sushi House and Tiger Den, is more interested in flavor and fragrance than getting you blitzed. Even his version of the Pimms Cup, England's similarly déclassé answer to the Rum & Coke, is remarkably well-balanced. Despite a significant amount of ginger ale paired with the already fruity Pimm's No. 1 mix, the drink isn't excessively sweet and gets a nice natural touch from fresh mint and macerated berries.
I tried it alongside another carefully crafted tipple, the Breede River Tonic. Indian Summer Gin, which uses saffron most prominently alongside more common gin botanicals, is the alcoholic base for the ladylike drink. Combier Crème de Pamplemousse Rose, a cream liqueur that tastes of red grapefruit, lights up a floral combination of elderflower tonic and a lemon-lavender mist whose odor tricks neurotransmitters into tasting the flower. After all, as much as 95 percent of what we think we taste is actually aroma.
The name gives away clear South African inspiration in drinks like the tonic. But others came to Hui from his own experiences. The Dankie Mule, in fact, owes not to the birthplace of humanity but the birthplace of the oversized sandwich. Drinking Dr. Brown's celery-flavored Cel-Ray soda at New York Jewish delis as a kid inspired Hui's use of the vegetable as the cocktail's base. Gin and lime contribute herbs and acid, but the spice comes from both the typical addition of ginger beer and Hui's own slap of a tincture made from African bird's eye chile, the piri-piri pepper that gives the restaurant its name. Once again, aroma plays a key role, too. The basil leaves resting at the top of the tumbler add significantly to the fresh flavor.
We're going to say it's even worth parking at the Galleria or driving to Vintage Park to try it.