Some of the dishes at sleek Peska Seafood Culture are a thrill ride of flavors. Take, for example, the yucateco ceviche with slices of octopus, their exteriors the color of iris blooms, firm cubes of conch and dense shrimp. A daring sting of habanero shines through — more of an encouraging kiss than a dissuading slap. Big cubes of avocado balance the fruity pepper heat with silky gentleness, while lime juice touches all with an electric zing.
Peska Seafood Culture specializes in exquisite fresh fish and seafood, both raw and simply prepared. It vastly succeeds in that capacity. Items so fresh from the sea are already delectable in their natural perfection and don’t need a lot of help. Thankfully, Peska understands that less is more. The true test of a executive chef’s aptitude, though, is in the composed dishes. Items like the ceviche indicate that Peska’s executive chef is indeed very talented.
He is Omar Pereney, a native of Venezuela. (He just turned 21.) Pereney has worked in restaurants since he was 12, is classically trained and even starred in his own cooking show, Yo, Cocinero (I, Cook), on the El Gourmet channel. That was a big point of interest in the announcements surrounding Peska’s opening. Is he a prodigy, as the press releases proclaimed? That’s a strong word, but it’s hard to imagine he’d be where he is today at such a young age if he were not.
Seafood aficionados will be like kids in a candy store looking through the wide glass case at the rare delicacies laid upon crystalline ice. On a single day there may be spiky sea urchin; Brazilian lobster tail with a shell the colors of mocha and cream; razor clams, split open and beckoning with their creamy flesh; whole red snapper; and even edible barnacles.
The choices change constantly, depending on what is available, and when they’re gone, they’re gone. That’s a good reason to visit earlier in the day rather than be confronted with a case that’s two-thirds empty. Another reason is that in the evenings, the place can be packed. Even with a reservation, a table might not be available for a long time. Such was the case on our first evening visit.
The hostess directed us to wait in the bar, but there was no place to sit. It was an uncomfortable situation. There just wasn’t any good place to be that wasn’t in the way of other guests or employees rushing back and forth.
After 20 minutes, two seats opened up at the bar. We passed the time with a cocktail. Fifteen more minutes went by. We asked the bartender if this was normal — to have a reservation and still have to wait this long to be seated. We were assured it was not and that the problem was a few tables of guests who lingered longer than expected. After 40 minutes, we were seated.
Even when you’re being careful, it’s quite easy to rack up a huge bill at Peska. Yet, examined individually, some of the items seem downright reasonable. Twenty dollars did not seem too much to pay for four silky, pale and firm razor clams from Spain, served in their own oblong half-shells atop a platter of ice. (The menu says “three pieces” but for some reason we ended up with four.) Two sauces accompanied them — trainera, a sherry-based vinaigrette that complimented the clams, and a “marinara” (essentially finely pureed cocktail sauce) that didn’t. Big, briny, stem-on caperberries scattered around the platter seemed like essential accompaniments.
(Who decided that a pack of plastic-wrapped saltine crackers belonged on that same tray? A crusty slice of bread on the side would have been welcome, though.)
A $23 sea urchin was equally delightful, with uni so golden that the feather-like gems seemed to glow, served in the deep brown spiky shell of the creature that once lived there. While there are shards of cucumber and tiny minces of red onion, lemon and lime served alongside, nothing is needed except for perhaps the merest touch of the citrusy soy sauce. Avoid the onion for sure — it’s far too overpowering for such a delicacy.
Tomato salad that used heirloom varieties in colors of ruby and forest-green seemed like a bargain-basement deal at a mere $7. They were practically bursting with juices, and were merely helped along with a touch of balsamic.
An order of fresh fish from the case, though, can send the bill spiraling into the stratosphere. A two-and-a-half-pound whole red snapper — split, cleaned, deboned and grilled over wood — cost $70. Yes, that’s a big fish, plenty for two or even three people to share. Add a few appetizers and a very modest $35 bottle of Huber sparkling rosé (which was perfect for the clams, by the way), and suddenly the tab has passed the $200 mark. At the end, there can be a vague feeling of dissatisfaction, like maybe a better experience could have been had elsewhere for the same amount.
Peska is just a few blocks down Post Oak from seafood-centric Caracol, and it’s interesting to compare them. Caracol’s wood-grilled snapper, called huachinango zarandeado, is much smaller — one to one and a quarter pounds. But it costs just $28. Even taking the weight difference into account, Caracol’s version is $5 less per pound. And they are quite comparable, with gorgeous flaky, dense flesh and just a touch of smokiness.
Still, it’s fun to see what creative concoctions Pereney’s young mind comes up with, and that’s worth the price of admission. The Peska green salad was anything but boring. Oak leaf lettuce mingled gracefully with neatly quartered asparagus spears, tender haricot vert, perky green peas and edamame. Pulled together under a miso vinaigrette, it was a compelling combination. Snowy mounds of whipped goat cheese seemed more a luxurious bonus than a necessity.
But just as you’re sailing along on a euphoric high, another dish can send you plummeting to the ground, as did the “Funny Bird.” There was nothing amusing about dry chicken on top of a bed of red quinoa and beets, even if the bowl was decorated with an artistic splatter of beet juice. “It’s like a very standard chicken dish for someone who comes here and doesn’t like seafood,” observed one dining companion. Indeed.
In stark contrast to the luxurious, imaginative fare is the modern, sparse space. It’s all glass and gloss and seems as cold as the fish in that icy case. The shiny white back-bar shelving and metal prods that hold bottles on the wine wall could have been designed by IKEA. It’s also noisy, and you can hear the business of your next-door neighbors. (Congratulations on your anniversary, Table Eight!)
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Dangling from the ceiling are hundreds of foil fish. The art installation “swims” all the way through the L-shaped dining and bar area. It’s cute, although it looks rather as if it could have been the end result of a school art project. During the day, though, sunlight brings the space alive and turns it into an elegant, airy lunchtime setting. At that time, without an unmanageable load of customers, the true Peska emerges. Suddenly, the modern transmutes into a warmer type of elegance.
Despite the complaints noted, Peska is one of the best restaurants that have opened in Houston over the past year. Those who want to dine on some of the best-quality fish and seafood in town (and don’t mind paying for it) should visit. All that is holding Peska back is that the environment and front-of-house operations aren’t quite matching up with its overall potential. Shoring up those problems is key for smooth swimming in the future.
Peska Seafood Culture
1700 Post Oak Boulevard #1-190, 713-961-9229. Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays and Mondays; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
Tomato salad $7
Yucateco ceviche $15
Razor clams $20
Sea urchin $23
Funny bird $24
Pappardelle al mare $28
Whole red snapper $70
Berry shortcake $8
Tequila cortado cocktail $12
Roasted slope cocktail $14
Huber rosé $35