“Soooo… do we like it?”
It is the voice of our importunate server at Peska Seafood Culture. Once more, all conversation and mastication must cease so that the table can collectively turn and offer, for the third time, its assessment of an evening that hasn’t even progressed beyond the appetizer stage. But I resist for a moment, not appreciating the interruption, not wanting to turn, not wanting to see that smile of hers, a smile that will have leapt over the divide between broad and terrifying, turning her into the malevolent clown of my nightmares.
I play a restaurant version of Boggle in my head during the brief moment of freedom that remains, generating no fewer than a hundred answers to the woman’s question, among them:
- This is fantastic.
- None of your business.
- You were right. This ceviche REALLY IS the amazing combination of flavors you told me it would be.
- Whatever happened to servers who just let you eat?
What indeed. While dining out at two newly opened establishments recently, I found myself becoming nostalgic for the Kresge’s lunch counter of my youth, a place of hair nets and bitter regret, of waitresses who dropped steaming platefuls before me with a bang and would never have thought to say be careful, now—this plate is very, very hot because they just didn’t give a damn. For the most part, Peska and La Grange both offer dining experiences far superior to that of Kresge’s (now there’s a blurb you won’t be seeing in an ad anytime soon) but gastronomic greatness will elude both, it seems to me, until their staffs master the ancient art that is unsolicitous, neglectful, uncaring servitude.
There are other parallels between La Grange, a coastal Mexican establishment housed in the old EJ’s—a somewhat infamous gay bar in Montrose—and Peska. The latter has an obvious affection for coastal Mexico too, in both its menu and ownership, by the Ysita family (which we are told has previously struck restaurant gold in Acapulco and elsewhere). And while the two eateries boast distinctly different clientele, I couldn’t help noticing two or three heavily made-up blondes among the Peska crowd who, well, wouldn’t have looked out of place at EJ’s.
Otherwise, Peska—sitting at a 45-degree angle to Post Oak Blvd., pointedly ignoring the Luby’s across the street—is a determinedly serious experience. Reservations are hard to come by at this hot spot, and I was greeted somewhat suspiciously by the hostess, a comely yet ferocious guard of the dining room. Upon learning from checkpoint Chita that my table was not yet ready, I decamped to the bar to ponder my existential predicament and eavesdrop on a Peska blonde and her admirer, a shriveled up old sport in a smart straw hat, his smile so enormous he might have been a server. “This is my hangout,” he beamed to his young companion, who appeared distracted and at a loss for words, owing to the difficulty of balancing atop her wedges. “What?” she finally said.
Which reminds me of another thing Peska and La Grange share, terrific patios far more comfortable than their handsome dining rooms, which can be criminally loud. (How loud? The waiter at Peska was forced to ask me what I thought of the Arctic char three times.) The upside to the noise was that I felt compelled to order a gin-and-tonic while waiting on my table at Peska, and a glorious one it was, sturdy and bracing and glamorized with herbs.
Soon thereafter came the first chance to taste the work of Omar Pereney, Peska’s chef, a 21-year-old Venezuelan wunderkind already known for his stints in kitchens (in Miami and Mexico) and on TV (as host of a popular Latin American food show). His delicious shrimp tacos came with a flavorful squirt of adobo sauce and were devoured quickly. As for the pulpo a la gallega, a skillet of octopus and roasted potato rounds—careful, it’s hot!—the dish provided a strong argument for alternative marriage, while the ceviche’s pairing of mahi mahi and green olives made a persuasive case for the more traditional sort. The only disappointment? The steamed mussels and chorizo, notwithstanding their longtime companionship.
Pereney’s .666 batting average stayed high even as the meal wore on. The cedar-tinged Arctic char gave the lie to those who think fish-on-a-plank a mere gimmick, and the tagliolini with prosciutto and cream made a liar out of those who would warn against Peska’s non-seafood culture. Still, I was less than truthful myself when commanded by the server to weigh in on the striped bass with lime juice. It’s great, I said. It wasn’t. It was okay.
Watching Pereney take the chef’s obligatory tour through the dining room, dressed all in black and scampering from table to table like a ninja, it seemed to me that my lie had been justified. One isn’t honest with a skinny, bespectacled 21-year-old. One is encouraging and supportive—to a point. That point being the moment when one’s table for four is presented with a $300 bill.
“Thanks and have a great night,” said the waiter, returning my credit card and swiftly departing. He knew better than to ask what I was thinking then.
The same was true of his chirpy doppelganger over in Montrose, although to be fair, it was a La Grange–appropriate chirpiness. Whereas Peska is a spiritual home to those who have made it as well as those on the make, La Grange is best understood as something in between, a comforting incubator for that pupal stage between college and financial independence. The spare, airy (and loud) bar area and dining room give way to a large two-level patio generously appointed with picnic tables, the perfect place to while away an August afternoon. (Yes, it’s hotter than hell right now, but after a couple of La Grange’s anodyne frozen margaritas—limey, slushy, perfectly boozy—I think you’ll agree that heatstroke never felt so fun.)
I was less wild about the grapefruit juiced Mezcal Paloma, a “smoky riff on a great classic” (says the menu) that featured too much mezcal and tasted rather like an ashtray to me. But then, the minds behind La Grange are full of ideas, which is better than the alternative. A plate of barbecued oysters bursting with Parmesan and garlic flavor made a persuasive case for ordering the mollusks out of season, and the fresh and citrusy ceviche, while not exactly the amazing combination of flavors promised, was far more seductive than scallops on tortilla chips have a right to be.
Any menu dedicated to complicating simple fare—bar food, in this case—is bound to make missteps. The La Grange burger tried a bit too hard (has the world really been waiting for a burger with refried beans, tortilla strips, pico de gallo, etc.?) but was saved by a fine beef brisket patty. The three-layer enchiladas were surprisingly good, whether made with beef or grilled vegetables (I tried both), although the split-level construction added nothing to the experience. Still, if tripartite Tex-Mex failed to impress, the Fajitas For Uno made me wish more places offered such modest options.
“I wish more places offered such modest options,” I said to the others at my table, referencing both the fajitas and La Grange’s reasonably priced menu. “This is about what I’d spend at a bar in, well, La Grange,” I laughed.
“Is dessert in our budget?”
It was our server. She’d been standing behind me the whole time. I glanced up just in time to watch her give me the once-over and a wink. “Margarita cheesecake,” I mumbled angrily. She nodded and walked away.
“Stop with the questions, woman,” I told the table. “It’s none of her damn business if I can afford dessert or not. And where does she get off…First she presumes to know what I’ll think of the food, then what I’ll think of the cocktails, and now what financial bracket I’m in. Can’t you just hear her in the kitchen gossiping? ‘See that table out there? Slow sippers and poor tippers. I’ll be refilling that tortilla basket well into the night. Sigh.’”
The table looked at me.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. The point is, she shouldn’t be assuming it.”
“The margarita cheesecake!” announced the server, who’d returned, setting before me a little glass jar of pudding and graham cracker bits. I nodded my thanks. She nodded back. I looked at her, waiting for her to depart. She didn’t. Uncomfortable pause.
“You’re gonna love it,” she finally said. Slowly, very slowly, I picked up my spoon and dug into the pudding. “Well?”
“BLECH,” I said, lying.