All That Glitters Isn't Gold at Mr. Peeples
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Coming back for brunch the next day was like returning to the scene of a crime.
Under the harsh light of day, the previous night's gluttonous escapades seemed somehow dirtier, the revelry less validated. Even the waitstaff had a different air about them, slower and almost guilty, as if they, too, had been overcome by the smorgasbord of food and alcohol and glittering lights and loud, reverberating techno music from the night before.
Sidling up to the bar for some eggs and hair of the dog, I wondered if the place should even be open before dark. Sure, there were plenty of people stopping by for smoked salmon omelets and Captain Crunch French toast, but does anyone really need the option of $30 lobster risotto or petit filet mignon at noon? Does anyone yearn to dine nestled in plush, overstuffed, scarlet-red chairs beneath ornate pink crystal chandeliers while completely sober? Is graffiti as hip and alluring in the glow of daylight as it is when seen through shafts of purple and fuchsia light, illuminating a word ("dance") here or an image (Pee-wee Herman) there?
In my opinion, the answers are no, no and no.
As I ate my jumbo lump crab omelet to the sounds of a techno remix of Neil Young's "Heart of Gold," I couldn't help wondering if this place was, somehow, someone's idea of an inside joke. When a restaurant group has enough money, it can open whatever the hell it wants and hope that curiosity and hype alone keep it afloat, right? How else to explain the 40,000-square-foot-hip-hop-lounge-meets-Vegas-steakhouse-circa-1987-meets-the-set-of-Prince's-Purple Rain that is the inimitable Mr.Peeples?
Am I missing something?
The crab-meat omelet I had for brunch was probably the best thing I ate at the newest project from the Landmark Houston Hospitality Group, which unveiled Mr. Peeples at the end of July this year. The restaurant's slogan is "Seafood. Steak. Style", but I found the less stylish dishes to be more alluring than the overwrought steaks and the sometimes superfluous lobster for lobster's sake.
Of course, it's hard to mess up an omelet, but I appreciate that Mr. Peeples doesn't endeavor to do so. Three fluffy eggs envelop chunks of ripe avocado, marinated artichoke hearts and crab meat as good as what you could get at any fresh-seafood dive. On the side is a perfectly fine potato and bell pepper hash. The omelet is topped with roasted tomato salsa and microgreens, an omnipresent garnish at Mr. Peeples. It was filling. It was tasty. It didn't challenge me, but it served its purpose, which was to be flavorful and sate my hunger. But the entire time I was eating it (and listening to the bartender tell me about the novel he's writing), I kept thinking about similar omelets available elsewhere for less money.
Of course, other omelets don't come with glittering chandeliers and red velvet pool tables and microgreens.
"Sweet" and "mushy" are the words we settled upon to describe Mr. Peeples. Sweet and mushy.
Even before dessert arrived, we'd unanimously agreed that those two adjectives best characterized the food, which is unfortunate, because, generally, the only course that should be sweet and mushy is dessert.
And then there's the atmosphere, which, in spite of the restaurant's desperate attempt to be hip and edgy, also feels sweet. And mushy. Describing it can sound like a monologue from Saturday Night Live's Stefon.
"This place has everything: Artist-commissioned graffiti with Banksy-esque stencils; gilded fences guarding the entranceway that may or may not be repurposed headboards from a kinky Medieval bed; curtained VIP lounge rooms that invite some hanky-panky while you wait for a table; ever-changing LED disco lights; chandeliers that glow without any apparent light source; husky-voiced waiters who know how to sell steak; women shivering because they're not dressed for the cold and/or the decor is giving them a seizure; dazzled drunks; confused Midwesterners; a DJ ruining all your favorite hits from Club 6400; shag carpet; topiaries; and enough purple to make Tinkie Winkie blush."
The over-the-top glitzy design could be forgiven if the food lived up to the intrigue of the space. But the menu, which focuses on steaks and seafood prepared in every classic style from campechano to coconut-crusted, seems humdrum, even under glowing neon lights.
Take the crab cakes, for example. They're possessed of plenty of lump crab meat with nary a shell in sight, but they're so undercooked that they don't hold together at all. Even the dark sear on the outside of each half-dollar-sized nugget cannot mask the fact that they're more crab mush than crab cake. The flavor is fine (if oddly saccharine), but the cilantro aioli, Dijon cream and maddening microgreens that accompany the appetizer do little to make it stand out amid a sea of other crustacean dishes.
The campechano (as it's written on the menu) — which, when referring to the food and not the Spanish word for "friendly" should be spelled campechana — is full of excellent lobster and crab meat and served in a martini glass surrounded by bright yellow strips of fried plantain chips. It paints a colorful picture, but suffers from too much sugary ketchup and not enough acidic citrus and spicy chile sauce.
Perhaps the best appetizer is house-smoked salmon "served with traditional accompaniments." Turns out these traditional accompaniments include everything one could want with smoked salmon — crispy bagel toast, diced onions, dollops of whipped cream, capers, hard-boiled eggs and a decoratively sliced lemon. Oh, and microgreens. The deconstructed lox and bagels is one dish at Mr. Peeples that's as spectacular in taste as it is in presentation.
But as the restaurant's slogan suggests, it's the cooked-to-order steaks and the expensive seafood entrées that Mr. Peeples is most proud of. Much of the top-dollar cuisine here can be disappointing, but I'll give the restaurant props for its near-perfect pork chops. The double Berkshire chops glazed with honey and perched atop a caramelized onion and apple slaw demonstrate how sweet and savory can work together harmoniously. There's nothing excessive about this dish. The chops are seasoned with salt and pepper, then pan-fried in the honey glaze and served with a single sprig of rosemary. Every aspect — from the light seasoning to the slight crust that keeps the interior juicy — is well executed.
I cannot say the same about the Wagyu steak, however, whose price increases if you want sauce or anything other than a single hunk of meat on your plate. I ordered mine medium-rare. The waiter dropped it off at the table, then walked away with nothing but a quickly uttered "Enjoy." When I cut into the steak, it was immediately obvious that it was well-done (on its way to desiccated), but the server was nowhere to be found. I hailed a busboy, who politely agreed to inquire about a new steak. When my server reappeared, he seemed jovial, as if pleased I'd already eaten the impeccable piece of meat.
By the time the new (smaller) steak was ready, my companions had nearly finished their pork chops and luxurious but questionably sweet vanilla lobster risotto. The steak was good, and the $15 Oscar sauce that topped it was salty. That's about all I have to say about that.
Have you been keeping track of how many things I described as sweet, sugary or saccharine? Have you counted how many of those were desserts? Don't bother. None of them was a dessert, because the desserts at Mr. Peeples are in a sweet and mushy category all their own.
I was honestly surprised by the unimpressive white chocolate bread pudding and confusing strawberry cheesecake, because I've had other desserts made elsewhere by the pastry chef, Johnny "Sweetcakes" Wesley, and they were interesting, delicious and beautiful. Perhaps the server steered me wrong; "the best bread pudding in Houston" tasted like challah bread soaked in sweet milk, then baked for a few minutes, while the cheesecake with "strawberries three ways" and a crust of crushed graham crackers left me scratching my head. Crushed graham crackers look a lot like dirt, and one of the three ways the strawberries were presented was chopped — as if this were a feat of culinary excellence.
At brunch the next day, in between sipping on a Bloody Mary that tasted as if it had been made with a cheap mix and trying to figure out if the chandeliers were actually that fantastic or if their glowing hues came from nearby colored bulbs shining on them, I ran the previous evening through my mind. Had I gone back in time to a club in the late '80s, where atmosphere trumps taste and surf and turf is the dish du jour? What was in that risotto that made it so mysteriously sweet? Was that Einstein painted on the wall? Is this really the future of Midtown dining?
Adding together the valet, the cocktails and wine, the appetizers, entrées and desserts, a dinner for two at Mr. Peeples can run you about $200. Some of the things you eat, such as the smoked salmon and the pork chops, will be worth it. Most of the rest of the menu can be found elsewhere around Houston for less money and with less pretense.
It's an interesting place, I'll give it that. And it seems to be someone's idea of what Houstonians want, though I don't personally know anyone who seeks out crystal and spray paint and velour and steak — and microgreens — all in one convenient location. In a way, those damn microgreens are a metaphor for Mr. Peeples as a whole. Aside from a few particular types of flavor-packed baby greens, such as cilantro or Italian basil, they don't add anything substantive to the meal. They're decorative. They proclaim to the diner, "This is fancy and pretty and expensive, and someone put a lot of thought into it."
Someone put a lot of thought into that funky decor, too, and really, that's what you're paying for at Mr. Peeples. The atmosphere. And the DJ. And the microgreens.
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