The bongo drums, violin and guitar trio is going at it joyfully, continuously and well, a little too loudly (something that never faded) as we walked into Peli Peli, a restaurant whose interior is a dark and bright odd mish mash of high tech and African touches throughout. A symbolic acacia tree stands in the middle of the room - Chef Paul Friedman tells us he wanted to put it there because at home, acacia trees grow all by themselves, "in the middle of nowhere." The chef is everywhere, not only because he's hustling around the room checking on the reactions to his dishes, but thanks to flat screens throughout the room that show him preparing and explaining his food techniques. Think Kroger aisles but more elegant.
This acacia tree and its just-opened restaurant are in the middle of Vintage Park, a rather substantial "village" of shops and restaurants on Louetta just off Highway 249. On this weekend night with temperatures in the 70s, there's a wonderful ambiance outside as an outdoor movie starts up in the center's center and people sit at nearby tables eating dinner and sipping wine, catching an occasional glimpse of "Field of Dreams."
We were here on a soft opening night so co-owner Thomas Nguyen and his partners have a chance to work out some of the kinks right before the real opening this past Monday, April 13. Part media tasting night, part friends-and-families discount night, the servers were working hard to do their best, but since they know who we are, there's no way to tell how good the service will be normally.
Peli Peli (which means bird's eye chili according to the restaurant's web site) gets its name from a spice discovered in the 15th century by the Portuguese in South Africa. Friedman likes this spice a lot - especially used with prawns and chicken -- and combines it with mangos, papayas and other fruits to tone down its sharper aspects while still bringing a lot of zip to his dishes.
We started with a tasting plate. The bacon-wrapped chicken peli peli ($8 as an appetizer) served with a coconut dipping sauce is spicy and melts in your mouth. The bacon is neither too rubbery or too crispy.
The finger ribs ($9) are messy but delicious. The one serving glitch: we were only given one paper napkin each. A couple of us made half-hearted stabs at eating them with a knife and fork, but that was a non-starter. The ribs are seasoned with peli peli and clove and served in a red wine barbecue sauce. We asked for more napkins and plunged ahead.
The peli peli chicken livers ($8) were excellent. In fact they were so good, that a certain 16-year-old was shocked when she found out what she'd just gobbled up. The liver is cut up in chunks, sautéed and served in a sauce. It sort of looks like refried beans, but tastes entirely different. A side of African rice pilaf was delicious and seemed to be flavored with curry. Baby butter lettuce hung on to one side of the plate to be used as a wrap or eaten by itself.
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There were two standout dishes that evening. We had chicken sosaties aka Dutch kebabs ($16) - they also come in beef - in which the meat chunks are alternated with apricots and marinated in a sweet curry sauce and served with two sides. It was a wonderful combination of spicy and fruity.
We also had the peli peli prawns ($28) which are grilled butterfly jumbo shrimp in a peli peli marinade. The prawns were suitably huge and avoided being too dry despite being grilled.
Dessert was a chocolate mousse meringue ($8) in which layers of hardened meringue and chocolate mousse were topped with cream and chocolate sauce. Warning: this is a pretty rich dish that might be better shared.
Bonus: they also offer $3 glasses of wine. They trade around the wines they are using for that so it's worth the risk.