A Galleria-area seafood restaurant is making some big changes in 2017. As it prepares to celebrate its second birthday in April, Peska Seafood Culture is moving in a new direction that will add American-style steaks and sides to its menu of mostly Mexican-inspired seafood dishes.
In response to changes in the market that have seen declining support from customers, owner Maite Ysita has enlisted the help of Grazia Italian Kitchen owner Adrian Hembree and executive chef Steve Haug to make both physical changes to the Gensler-designed space and new additions to the menu. The restaurant has been closed since Sunday night for the physical changes, but it will reopen on Thursday.
“I started realizing there was a market change six or seven months after we opened,” Ysita tells CultureMap. “Oil prices went down, fewer people were spending money. I also looked at the menu, and I thought we had to open our market and offer more steaks, more non-seafood items, a little bit more approachable for the market in this area.”
In order to better understand Peska’s situation, Ysita responded by moving her family from Mexico to Houston, which allowed her to spend more time at the restaurant. At the suggestion of a mutual friend, she met with Hembree and discovered someone who understood Houston and shared her vision for Peska’s potential.
It might seem like an unlikely match, but Hembree has a track record of success at giving people what they want — just consider its surprising win at last year’s Rodeo Best Bites competition. Grazia has already expanded from its original location in Pearland to a second in Clear Lake. In addition, Hembree opened a Tex-Mex concept called Gracia Mexican Cantina in Corpus Christi. Haug brings experience in the area, too, having served as the executive chef at Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse almost 10 years.
“What I felt was happening here is not that we don’t have a great location, a beautiful building, or the ability to put out great food. I just felt like, and the opportunity for me, was we needed to connect the dots,” Hembree says. “We weren’t too far off from where we needed to be, the opportunity was there to connect those dots and figure out what people want.”
The biggest physical change involves expanding the bar area by converting the restaurant’s market section of fresh fish and dry goods into more seating. Instead of being greeted by a large display of fresh fish on ice and shelves with products like olive oil and tinned seafood, diners will seat a large, U-shaped bar with lounge furniture. These changes are designed to make the restaurant more appealing to walk-ins and allow Peska to expand its happy hour business with a dedicated bar menu.
Haug’s additions to the dinner menu start with eight USDA Prime steaks along with steakhouse starters and sides like a wedge salad, jumbo lump crab cake, and triple cheese lobster mac and cheese (Haug has been previewing some of the changes on his Instagram and in the Houston Foodie Friends Facebook group). Staples from the restaurant’s siblings in Mexico City and Acapulco like the tiraditos, pork belly bun, half and half snapper, and whole branzino will remain.
Hembree has dubbed the blending of steak and seafood “Pes-karne,” and Haug tells CultureMap he thinks the ability to serve high-quality meat and fish together will help Peska stand out from the numerous other steakhouses near the Galleria.
“The one thing I think that’s going to set us apart, I think there’s where Peska comes in with their superb seafood,” Haug says. “I think a lot of steakhouses have seafood on their menu, but what we have to offer is not your basic pan-seared salmon. We’re taking the seafood to a new level.”
However, that new level will not involve opening chef Omar Pereney. Although a decision about his future with the restaurant hadn’t been made when CultureMap spoke to Ysita, Hembree, and Haug last week, the 22-year old executive chef subsequently opted to resign rather than continue with Peska’s new direction. Even before Pereney made his decision, the writing was on the wall about his future with the restaurant.
“I look at a plate he puts out, and it looks like art. I know he put every ounce of passion into putting out that dish,” Hembree says. “I think when something came out, a beautiful piece of fish that was sauced just right, it felt absolutely incredible. You take that same fish and you overdress it and over-decorate it and put some twist to it and get really creative with it, that feeling of ‘I want to dig into that fish’ really went away. What we’re trying to capture here is when food hits that table, we’re excited. I’m just jonesing to go in and take a bite.”
The parting may be bittersweet for Ysita, but she expresses confidence that Peska is heading in the right direction.
“Peska is my baby, and I know the potential it has,” she says. “I know the brand that we’re building. I know what we want to do with Peska and the location we have.”