Restaurant Reviews

The Chef's Table: A Delicious Social Hour

Fish tacos, South African-style.
Fish tacos, South African-style. Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
There aren't many things that can lure us out of our air-conditioned sanctuaries these days but cabin fever can begin to get the best of us. Last week  my husband, Classic Rock Bob, and I found ourselves looking for a happy hour near our home to get away from our computers and the depressive thoughts that enter one's brain while looking out over a barren landscape of dead lawn.

We considered our choices, did our online searches of menus and decided to check out The Chef's Table at Vintage Park. The upscale restaurant opened in 2021 from chef/owner Paul Friedman after he disbanded the Peli Peli restaurant group. Though the restaurant has been open for two years, we had yet to try it out. On this day, we were wanting to take advantage of its social hour specials, which are available in the bar or patio from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday.
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Pink water is a refreshing start to a meal at The Chef's Table.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
Friedman is a native of South Africa and was on the forefront of introducing South African cuisine to Houston long before Nando's Peri Peri and other South African restaurants that have opened over the years. The Vintage Park location was the original which opened in 2009. It then expanded to the Galleria and The Woodlands before adding a spin-off fast-casual concept Peli Peli Kitchen.

Though the Peli Peli brand is sadly gone, Friedman opened The Chef's Table in the original Peli Peli spot in July 2021, completely transforming it from a warm and colorful interior to a chic, black, and very contemporary space.

Upon entering, I was a little taken aback by the transformation. There was a hostess stand directly in front,  with the dining rooms almost hidden away. The bar, however, is the focal point on walking in and that's where CRB and I were headed.

We were immediately greeted by a smiling and personable bartender. She was very helpful in explaining the wine list, but we were there for happy hour so we opted for a couple of cocktails. Before she made our drinks, she gave us each a glass of rose-colored water, tinged pink by a very light touch of strawberry. It was very tasty and refreshing.
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I wish Houston was dark and stormy like my drink.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
My cocktail of choice was the Dark and Stormy, made with rum and Chef Friedman's ginger beer. There was a lot of fresh mint so I knew I would at least have good breath the rest of the day. It was a well-balanced cocktail with the lime subtly cutting through the sweetness of the mint leaves and rum. My husband went for the Spicy TCT Candy, a delicious concoction of tequila, watermelon liqueur and a hint of the chef's hot sauce. It was rimmed with Friedman's own mix of spices that had a hint of chile pepper, like Tajin without the kick of salt and lime. I like Tajin but I actually may prefer Chef Friedman's blend.

The cocktails were $7 for social hour, a great deal considering the rapidly rising rate of adult beverages in this city. Outside of social hour, most of The Chef's Table cocktails run from $14 to $16. The happy hour deals also included Bourbon Highball, a gin-based soda cocktail, a lemon drop martini and select wine.

We had ordered several items from the bar bites menu and they turned out to be great choices. The blackened Kingklip tacos was a plate of two tacos for $8. Though the menu photo shows what looks like the restaurant's chimichurri on top, our tacos had more than a generous dressing of what I believe was the peppadew tartar sauce. CRB thought it was too much, but I love sauce so I was happy. It did make for messing eating. The Kingklip was mild and the South African version of blackened doesn't seem to be as spicy as the Cajun style. I couldn't tell if the shells were soft tortillas or naan bread. The restaurant does have a naan appetizer, so that may be it. They stood up to the sauce and filling whatever the case.  The Kingklip can be ordered fried as well and there are other taco choices including fajita beef and tofu.
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With the Mixed Fry Basket, you don't have to choose.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
We also had the Mixed Fry Basket ($6) which has both sweet potato and French fries. I miss the parmesan fries that used to be on the Peli Peli menu but these were a great alternative and CRB, who doesn't normally like sweet potato fries was converted. We also had the Steak Sliders ($8) which were served on Hawaiian rolls. Despite being thin, the meat was perfectly cooked, still pink inside, and amazingly tender. The freshness of the chimichurri worked well with the beef and did not have too much garlic, letting the sweetness of the minced peppadew peppers shine through. 

And then, there was the Peri Peri Calamari. CRB and I are fans of fried squid but often are disappointed in the rubbery, and I suspect frozen, versions we get at some places around town. The calamari at The Chef's Table might just be the best we've ever had, knocking out our current favorite at Blue Onyx Bistro. It was served with the peppadew tartar sauce, which has a nice sweetness, but I found myself just enjoying the calamari sans sauce. There were peri peri spices in the light breading but they weren't terribly noticeable. The fry on the calamari was so perfect that we could have eaten a whole lot more.
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Bar bites makes us happy.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
We switched to wine to go with our food. During social hour, there are $7 glasses of wine which vary from day to day. This day, our bartender Lindsey offered two South African reds and a Chianti. CRB, a creature of habit, had the Chianti while I wanted to try the SA wines. I opted for the drier of the two, the Anura Pinotage Shiraz. It was dry, but not overtly, and was very smooth, tasting of dark fruit.

While CRB made a trip to the restrooms, I ducked into the dining room for a peek. It's dark and completely different than its original look. There are booths lining the walls with a few tables in the center. While it feels cozy, I preferred the bar area. Light comes in through the windows, but the adjacent covered patio means that it's not intense. Our upholstered barstools were very comfortable and there are plush banquettes lining one wall along with a clear glass cabinet of wine. It's very sophisticated but not stuffy.
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The bar area is a modern, yet comfortable place to relax.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
Besides the delicious food and drinks, our service was stellar as well. Lindsey was a good conversationalist without being obtrusive. She's exactly the kind of bartender you want; knowledgeable and friendly. She was also taking care of guests on the outdoor patio. Chef Friedman made an appearance as well, so he is definitely on the scene, unlike some chefs and restaurateurs.

As we were winding down our visit, two well-dressed women of a certain age came in and sat at the bar by us and they looked ready to have a good time. They were definitely regular customers and we enjoyed a brief conversation and a few laughs with them.
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The Sticky Toffee Cheesecake travels well.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
I ordered a Sticky Toffee Pudding to go but Lindsey suggested the Sticky Toffee Cheesecake ($12) instead because the pudding was served with ice cream and would be a truly sticky mess by the time we got home. Toffee and cheesecake together is the stuff of dreams, at least mine, so we took one home to enjoy with our anniversary bottle of champagne. While I missed the pudding, the cheesecake was creamy with bits of dates and the buttery toffee made it even better.

The social hour was a great way to get a taste of what The Chef's Table has to offer and we'll definitely be back. Those calamari alone are worth a repeat visit but I am interested in tasting more of Friedman's South African cuisine in the future.

The Chef's Table
110 Vintage Park Boulevard
Building J, Suite P
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Lorretta Ruggiero is a Houston Press freelance writer based in Cypress, Texas. She loves entertaining her family and friends with her food and sparkling wit. She is married to Classic Rock Bob and they have two exceptionally smart-aleck children.