When choosing a restaurant while on vacation in a coastal city or town, a person will naturally lean towards seafood. After all, the idea of eating something that's fresh off the boat — that may have only been swimming hours before it hits the plate — is typically too appealing to resist.
This is why Maine is known for lobster rolls and the Gulf Coast for oysters. If the trip is longer than a few days, a seafood lover might even check out a local market to peruse a selection of fresh fish on ice. A fishmonger offers advice about which species are particularly delicious and maybe even how to prepare them.
For a true seafood lover, such an experience is pretty much perfect.
Now take the idea of that seafood market and add to it a kitchen run by a rising star chef who's coming to the big city with something to prove. Add in a couple of locals to guide him through the scene. That combination will soon exist in the form of Peska Seafood Culture, set to open in March. Peska combines a fresh seafood market with a top-notch kitchen.
"It’s also not a Mexican seafood restaurant. It’s a fresh seafood restaurant or an upscale seafood restaurant."
Located next to True Food Kitchen in BLVD Place II, Peska in the first American restaurant from Mexico-based Ysita family, who are known for their La Trainera restaurants in Mexico City and Acapulco.
Omar Pereney leads the kitchen. Although he's only 20, Pereney's resume includes high profile positions in his native Venezuela as well as in Mexico and Miami. He's also a culinary celebrity thanks to his TV show El Gourmet which airs throughout Latin America.
Pereney moved to Houston in December for the project and will remain here for the foreseeable future, except when he travels for a week or two twice a year to film more TV episodes. Former Sorrel Urban Bistro/Lancaster Hotel chef Chris Andrus has signed on as Pereney's executive sous chef, and Pappas Bros. Steakhouse veteran Pete Contaldi will serve as general manager.
Although the concept has its roots in Mexico, Peska isn't a Mexican seafood restaurant in the same style as nearby Caracol.
"(The name) is more than a change in the spelling of the word for fish," Contaldi tells CultureMap. "It’s the culture of seafood. It’s also not a Mexican seafood restaurant. It’s a fresh seafood restaurant or an upscale seafood restaurant."
Operating on the principle of "what grows together goes together," Peska will take seafood from different parts of the world, as many as 30 to 35 options in the display case at the front of the restaurant, and prepare it in a style consistent with its country of origin. Peruvian-style ceviches will sit on the menu alongside Japanese-style sashimi and Gulf Coast pan-seared filets — if the fresh ingredients necessary to make the dishes are available that day.
The closest comparison might be the departed raw bar Cove, if that restaurant had a cooked component. As at any market, the dishes will be sold by weight.
"The most important thing for us is to bring the original flavor of the product," Pereney says. "We do simple recipes to bring the texture and flavor of the ingredients. We don’t do anything that’s over salted, over sauced, over garnished or over spiced. It’s out of our concept."
Such an approach has its challenges, of course. "At a regular restaurant, you work hard to make standard all of your recipes. You have to make standard portions. You can standardize times of cooking," Pereney says. "Whenever you are cooking any kind of seafood, any size, any weight, you really need to have true cooks."
The Floor Chef
The dining experience will be guided a person that Peska refers to as a "floor chef." Essentially a sommelier for seafood, the floor chef will take diners to the seafood case at the front of the restaurant and explain what's fresh that day and suggest preparations. If a diner wants a dish prepared in a different way, the floor chef will work with the kitchen to deliver the intended result.
"The floor chef is the one who comes in and makes sure he understands what the guest is looking for," Contaldi explains. "They're the authority on the tools and the toolbox of the restaurant. They’re the ones who will tell their guests ‘Tell me what you’re looking for, and I’ll tell you how best to enjoy the restaurant.’ Kind of a tour guide for the whole experience."
"We don’t do anything that’s over salted, over sauced, over garnished or over spiced. It’s out of our concept."
Owner Maite Ysita says that Peska hopes to educate its customers about different species and styles of cuisines they may not have experienced before. "Maybe one day they come and then tomorrow they come and we don’t have the oysters we did the day before because the fishermen didn’t bring it to us," she says.
In such a case, the floor chef will guide diners toward something that may be new to them.
The whole concept sounds good in theory, but how does it work in practice? Diners who attended the most recent Recipe for Success Chef Surprise dinner became Pereney's first paying customers in Houston. The chef offered a preview of Peska's style over a five course menu.
Rather than the more familiar oysters, the meal began with two chocolate clams: One grilled and another in a crudo. White wine butter and portobello mushrooms gave the slightly sweet clams a contrasting earthy undertone. From there, the menu moved on to two ceviches: A sweet tuna and watermelon alongside striped bass that packed plenty of heat from serrano peppers.
By the third and four courses, Pereney started to demonstrate how Peska might serve the same type of fish in different ways. Tuna tartare made another appearance in the third course atop a crispy tostada. Striped bass from the second course reappeared as a grilled filet with sea beans for the entree.
Dessert came with a bit of theater. Not from the mascarpone cheese with fresh berries, but rather the "dragon's kiss," a mint dessert that was dipped in liquid nitrogen. After a person bit into the cold treat, she appeared to blow "smoke," dragon style.
Obviously, the ability to serve 20 diners from good quality home kitchen equipment doesn't demonstrate much about Pereney's ability to manage a professional kitchen when Peska's dining room is full. But the command of flavors and styles he demonstrated at Recipe for Success does demonstrate why the Ysita family is betting big on him.
With an adventurous concept and a promising chef, Peska Seafood Culture remains one of the spring's most anticipated openings. If it works, it'll be like a trip to the coasts of the world for the price of fighting Galleria-area traffic.