Restaurant News

Openings and Closings: Paul Friedman's Chef's Table, Gratify Replaces Punk's

This Jerk Snapper looks ready to throw down.
This Jerk Snapper looks ready to throw down. Photo by Paul Friedman

The Chef's Table
, 110 Vintage Park, will celebrate its grand opening July 19. The new restaurant takes over the original home of Peli Peli which lured in nearby residents to Vintage Park for years. It's a fitting return for chef/owner Paul Friedman who was the CEO, partner and executive chef at Peli Peli when it opened in 2009, quickly becoming a Houston favorite with its South African fusion menu. Despite a lack of familiarity with the cuisine, Houstonians embraced it, giving Peli Peli numerous local awards for Most Romantic Restaurant and the Houston Press Reader's Choice Award in 2009. It later opened locations in The Galleria and The Woodlands plus the spin-off Peli Peli Kitchen, a fast-casual concept.

click to enlarge Every table is the chef's table at Paul Friedman's  new restaurant. - PHOTO BY PAUL FRIEDMAN
Every table is the chef's table at Paul Friedman's new restaurant.
Photo by Paul Friedman

Prior to opening Peli Peli with co-founders, Thomas Nguyen and Mike Tran, Friedman owned and operated a pizza business in northwest Houston, Paul's Pizza Shop, which opened in 1994 and was later sold in 2006. Before that, Friedman operated numerous restaurants in his native South Africa with Mike Illion, founder of Mike's Kitchen. He has also been a contestant on television shows such as Food Network's Cutthroat Kitchen and CNBC's Restaurant Startup Season 3. Friedman retired from his duties at Peli Peli in 2018. He and Nguyen, who also moved onto a new profession, remain shareholders.

click to enlarge The Chef's Table will sell oils and spices for home cooks. - PHOTO BY PAUL FRIEDMAN
The Chef's Table will sell oils and spices for home cooks.
Photo by Paul Friedman
The new restaurant gives Friedman total reign over the menu and the decor. The food is inspired by the multi-cultural diversity of South Africa. Fans will still find Peli Peli-inspired dishes like Carrot Bredie and Sticky Toffee on the menu but there will be new offerings such as Onion Bahji and Peri Peri Calamari served with peppadew tartar. Soups like carrot-ginger and prawn bisque are delicious starters but spice lovers might want to opt for Friedman's gumbo, made with Friedman's peli peli powder. Entrees include Portuguese Chicken or Beef Pendurada, similar to Peli Peli's espetadas, which are hanging skewers of meat. Friedman's version is served with guava sauce, garlic butter and sweet chili sauce.

The fusion gets even more interesting with dishes such as Schnitzel Poblano, a pan-fried chicken breast with poblano sauce and Jerk Snapper, a crispy whole Snapper with tropical salsa. The Lollipop Chops are made with New Zealand lamb and the Moules on the Half-shell are made with mussels from New Zealand as well. Me, I want to try the Eggplant Tempura sandwich because I love fried eggplant and it comes with chakalaka sauce. I am not sure what's in it; I just like saying chakalaka.

click to enlarge Paul Friedman has completely overhauled the former Peli Peli space, including its kitchen. - PHOTO BY PAUL FRIEDMAN
Paul Friedman has completely overhauled the former Peli Peli space, including its kitchen.
Photo by Paul Friedman
The wine list will lean South African. Friedman told the Press that he has worked closely with Anura Vineyards in South Africa for varietals that will pair well with his menu. Because of its location in the foothills of the Simonsberg Mountains, Anura is able to grow a number of different wine grapes including Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Tempranillo, Grenache, Shiraz and Viognier.

Friedman says that his goal is to create an elevated dining experience that will garner him a Michelin star or a James Beard Award which means that everything at The Chef's Table has been well-planned from the wood boards that many of its dishes will be served on to the black wood walls, white brick and brushed gold accents. Friedman has filled the restaurant with intimate booths so that every guest will feel as if they are at the chef's table.

click to enlarge European travel is highly restricted right now so get your fix at Gratify. - PHOTO BY CLARK COOPER CONCEPTS
European travel is highly restricted right now so get your fix at Gratify.
Photo by Clark Cooper Concepts

Gratify Neighborhood Bistro, 5212 Morningside, opened July 3. Located next to its sister restaurant, Coppa Osteria, the Clark Cooper Concepts' new bistro takes over the space that once housed another of its popular concepts, Punk's Simple Southern Food.

The restaurant has an extensive raw bar with freshly shucked oysters, caviar, tartare, crudo, ceviche and more. Craft cocktails range from classics like Aperol Spritz and Mojito to its Traveler's List of $18 drinks inspired by famous places like The Good, The Bad and The Hombre from Chateau Marmont in West Hollywood. The carefully curated wine list will add to the decadent experience as will the number of Market Price items on the menu, a sight that makes this writer sweat.

click to enlarge Does your neighborhood bistro serve caviar? - PHOTO BY CLARK COOPER CONCEPTS
Does your neighborhood bistro serve caviar?
Photo by Clark Cooper Concepts
The menu online shows starters like Lamb Meatballs and entrees such as Chicken Provencal and Short Ribs. The $23 Gratify Burger comes with fries at least, or in this case, pommes frites. And in keeping with the current trend of European-style seafood towers appearing on American menus, Gratify has two Plateau de Fruits de Mer options, Le Grand and Le Gratify Tower. Guests can munch and mingle in a decor inspired by baroque architecture with a disco ball overhead, mimicking the mirrored halls of Versailles. Owner Grant Cooper has taken the influences of his European upbringing and travels with his wife Jacy to create a space that is elegant and indulgent but also welcoming for the surrounding neighborhood.

The restaurant gets its name from the gratitude Cooper feels for his staff and the community who helped keep Clark Cooper Concepts afloat during the pandemic.

The bistro is currently open for dinner service Tuesday through Saturday. It will add lunch service in the future as the staffing gets up to speed and brunch will be added toward the end of the year. Reservations are a good idea.

click to enlarge These Zeppelins are fueled by salad so you won't explode. - PHOTO BY MICHAEL ANTHONY
These Zeppelins are fueled by salad so you won't explode.
Photo by Michael Anthony
Bread Zeppelin, 1700 Lake Plaza, debuted its first Houston outpost July 22. The Dallas-based brand operates six locations in the DFW area. The Houston restaurant joins Common Bond, Island Grill and Chipotle at City Place, formerly known as Springwoods Village. A second location of Sushi Rebel is planned for City Place in August.

The restaurant's signature item is the Zeppelin, a locally baked artisan baguette which is toasted to order. It is cored out then filled with the guest's choice of chopped salad. This hybrid of sandwich and salad is self-contained making it convenient for on-the-go dining, unlike a tortilla wrap. The signature salad options are inspired by global flavors and the combinations include the Southwest, The NOLA, Kale-ifornia and Shanghai. Protein can be added for an additional cost.

click to enlarge Customers have a whole lotta love for Bread Zeppelin's "salads elevated". - PHOTO BY MICHAEL ANTHONY
Customers have a whole lotta love for Bread Zeppelin's "salads elevated".
Photo by Michael Anthony
Guests may also choose to create their own Zeppelin or Bowl by choosing a base of romaine, iceberg, Arcadia mix, kale, spinach or grain medley with a variety of veggies, crunchies and cheese from which to choose. There is a large selection of dressings including Tejano Caesar, Avocado Ranch, Sesame-Ginger Vinaigrette, Cranberry Poppy, French Remoulade and Tzatziki, just to list a few.

The company is community-focused, bringing in high schoolers for part-time jobs and organizing fun community events. It also makes sustainability a priority, using the cored-out parts of the Zeppelin baguettes for its salad croutons and bread pudding. (You know you wanted to ask)

Founded by high school buds Troy Charhon and Andrew Schoellkopf in 2010, the brand has partnered with Avalanche Food Group to expand its Zeppelin footprint. Avalanche owns and operates eight Twin Peaks locations, including seven in Texas, plus two Fuel Kitchen & Health Bar stores in the Greater Houston area.

click to enlarge Phyllis and Tony Mandola shutter their restaurant. - PHOTO BY DAWN MCGEE
Phyllis and Tony Mandola shutter their restaurant.
Photo by Dawn McGee
Tony Mandola's, 1212 Waugh, will close July 26, as first reported by the Houston Chronicle. The announcement was made via Instagram by co-owner Phyllis Mandola who opened the Waugh location with her husband and restaurant's namesake Tony Mandola in 2011. The husband and wife duo first opened a seafood concept, Blue Oyster Bar, in 1982. Since then, the couple has relocated the concept in some form or other in several different locations around Houston. The concept has stayed the same with fresh New Orleans-style Gulf seafood and Sicilian influences from Mandola's heritage.

Phyllis Mandola was the only daughter of Houston's beloved Ninfa Laurenzo, better known as Mama Ninfa, who opened Ninfa's on Navigation and is credited for bringing fajitas to Houston.  Husband Tony, also comes from restaurant royalty as the son of Grace Mandola, another influential culinary matriarch whose sons and grandson went on to open their own restaurants, blending their Sicilian roots with the Gulf Coast fare of Texas and Louisiana.
click to enlarge Some think she's worn and tired, others find her a fading starlet. - PHOTO BY MIKE PUCKETT
Some think she's worn and tired, others find her a fading starlet.
Photo by Mike Puckett
Spanish Village, 4720 Almeda, will close its doors July 17 after 68 years in business, as first reported here in the Houston Press. The Tex-Mex restaurant has been in operation since 1953 but much of the structure itself was built in the 1880s, according to owner Abhi Sreerama who bought the restaurant in 2018 from John Medina. The age of the building and the restaurant's equipment are what ultimately decided its fate. For Sreerama and his wife chef Ishita Chakravarty, the constant repairs became too much of a financial burden. Sreerama has not cut himself a paycheck for the past two years in order to keep the account funds available for the continuous stream of broken equipment. The pandemic's fall out and the dramatic increase in produce prices just added to the stress. Sreerama estimates that in order to get the necessary renovations done and maintain a profit margin, the menu prices would have to be raised by at least a third.

click to enlarge Ishita Chakravarty and Abhi Sreerama may bloom elsewhere with their vegan concept. - PHOTO BY GARY GRIFFIN
Ishita Chakravarty and Abhi Sreerama may bloom elsewhere with their vegan concept.
Photo by Gary Griffin
Owning Spanish Village was a dream for the native Houstonian and he acquired it at at the very young age of 26, according to the Houston Chronicle. He brought in Chakravarty, now his wife, to oversee the kitchen and menu. Under her direction, the restaurant added a sizable vegan menu, which has become quite popular. Unfortunately, the strain on the couple's well-being has been difficult. Sreerama said, "It's been a very tough year with a lot of ups and downs and frankly, my wife and I feel pretty burnt out."

While the ending of a dream is difficult, Sreerama is in talks with potential buyers for the Spanish Village brand, so all may not be lost for the venerable restaurant. As for Sreerama and Chakravarty, there are tentative plans to continue with the Little Village vegan Tex-Mex concept elsewhere. Probably not in an 1880s building.

Burns Original BBQ Bistro, 14221 E. Sam Houston Parkway, celebrated its opening July 3 at Kroger Store #128 with Mayor Sylvester Turner in attendance for the ribbon cutting. Located inside the Summerwood Kroger, it offers shoppers a convenient way to grab groceries and some of Houston's best barbecue to-go.

Roy Burns Sr. first opened the restaurant in 1973, serving his soon-to-be-famous barbecue to the Acres Home community. Word got out and Burns Original BBQ became a smoked meat destination for Texans, out-of-state visitors and celebrities. One of those celebrities was the late Anthony Bourdain whose television show Parts Unknown featured the restaurant on an episode in 2017. His face shows up as a mural behind the bistro's counter. Burns Sr. passed away in 2009 but his family still carries on his legacy and the expansion out of Acres Home is a testament to its popularity.

click to enlarge The Agnello Brasato is one of the heartier dishes. - PHOTO BY AVANTI ITALIAN KITCHEN & WINE BAR
The Agnello Brasato is one of the heartier dishes.
Photo by Avanti Italian Kitchen & Wine Bar
Avanti Italian Kitchen and Wine Bar, 2520 Research Forest, opened June 7. This is the second location of Avanti's. The first opened at 8540 Creekside, also in The Woodlands, in January 2020. Avanti Kitchen is the second Italian concept for owner Enrique Orioli, whose family first opened the much-loved Via Emilia Italian Restaurant over 20 years ago. The new restaurant takes over the space that was home to Radunare, which struggled through the pandemic shutdown, eventually shuttering.

The menu at Avanti features creative interpretations of modern and regional Italian cuisine with antipasti, hand-crafted pasta, pizza, fresh seafood, and delicious desserts. "We make everything in house, the breads, the pasta, the sauce, even the salad dressings," says Orioli. Since Via Emilia is well-known for its braised meats, Avanti's menu also includes hearty dishes like Braised Beef Short Rib, Braised Lamb Shank plus a Berkshire Pork Tomahawk and New York Strip. And, unlike many fine-dining restaurants, its menu prices won't make your eyes bug out.

click to enlarge Wine, wine, everywhere a wine. - PHOTO BY AVANTI ITALIAN KITCHEN & BAR
Wine, wine, everywhere a wine.
Photo by Avanti Italian Kitchen & Bar
There's an extensive wine list for the numerous bottles that lie beautifully behind glass walls. The bar program offers wine flights, craft cocktails and a rotating selection of 36 wines by the glass.

The pandemic was a tough time to keep restaurants alive and the family managed to make it with take-out and the slow reopening for dine-in. Orioli says he is now able to hire many of the employees he had to lay off during the coronavirus shutdown.

"We have three generations of family working together each day, myself and my brother, my mother, my father, and my father’s 84 year old mother, Nonna Elda, " says Orioli. "We look forward to sharing our passion for food and culture from the Emilia Romagna region of Italy, where our family is originally from."

click to enlarge Happiness is a warm welcome and a cool gelato. - PHOTO BY DIETMAR NEIDHARDT
Happiness is a warm welcome and a cool gelato.
Photo by Dietmar Neidhardt

Gelato Picks, 16525 Lexington, opened June 24 making Sugar Land even sweeter. It was founded by Dietmar Neidhardt, a former Oil and Gas industry executive whose love of gelato brought him out of retirement and into the world of gelato, an Italian frozen dessert similar to ice cream. However, gelato has less fat, less carbs, less air and more flavor.

Neidhardt's journey to gelato is an interesting one. As he traveled the world for his career, he found that ending his meals with a gelato was a treasured finish to a trying day. Many years later, a friend introduced him to the art of making gelato. It was at the height of the pandemic but Neidhardt was infected by a much friendlier virus and after a three-day crash course, Neidhardt felt ready to take over his friend's gelateria. The friend was eager to return home to New Zealand. Unfortunately, the landlord was not infected by the gelato virus and the deal fell through.

click to enlarge Dietmar Neidhardt stands ready to serve Sugar Land some gelato and happiness. - PHOTO BY DIETMAR NEIDHARDT
Dietmar Neidhardt stands ready to serve Sugar Land some gelato and happiness.
Photo by Dietmar Neidhardt

Not one to be stymied by a little obstacle, Neidhardt acquired a professional gelato batch freezer that could turn out two gallons per hour. He signed up for a virtual three-course training program at the Carpigiani Gelato University in Bologna, Italy. Because the hours were Central European time, he was up at 1 a.m. through 10 a.m. here in Texas. After virtual classes with students from all over the world, Neidhardt successfully finished his course and began looking for willing subjects to try his creations.

He looked no further than his neighbors who became the first members of his "Original Venetian Gelato Club."  For free gelato, they were willing participants. Every Sunday evening, the gelateri brought a little sweet sunshine into his neighbors' pandemic lives. They soon convinced him it was time to open his own shop. Months later, in the middle of COVID restrictions, he signed a lease. While a few sleepless nights have made him wonder if he was nuts, he says he would do it all again tomorrow, " Because all of us deserve a little sweetness in life and now I can help others share in mine...I want Gelato Picks to be there for everybody, when all this misery is behind us, to simply come out to my shop and have again a great time."

click to enlarge Takara's beautifully plated rolls can be enjoyed lakeside. - PHOTO BY SANDRA CRITTENDEN
Takara's beautifully plated rolls can be enjoyed lakeside.
Photo by Sandra Crittenden
Takara Sushi and Asian Bistro, 15830 Southwest Freeway, opened June 21 with its soft opening specials lasting through July 15. It will have a grand opening later this month, according to Houston Food Finder. It takes over the space that once housed Azuma on the Lake, another Japanese and sushi restaurant that closed in the summer of 2020, a victim of the COVID pandemic shutdown. This is the second location for Takara which has another in Cedar Park, just north of Austin.

Its menu begins with appetizers like Seven Spice Calamari, Shrimp Tempura and Crispy Green Beans. Its Japanese take on stuffed jalapenos, Jalapeno Bomb, is a dish of panko-breaded jalapenos stuffed with spicy tuna and cream cheese served with a mango-unagi glaze. The Master Chef's Specialty appetizers include the NY Strip Carpaccio and Yuzu Hamachi. There are soups like Thai Basil, Miso and Classic Egg Drop. There are House Rolls like California, Dragon, Spider and Unagi for diners who stay in their comfort zone but adventurous types might want to opt for one of the Specialty Rolls which include the Mardi Gras with crawfish and shrimp and the Texas, made with NY Strip, crab, avocado, jalapeno and cream cheese. Dinner entrees include Prime Angus Short Rib, lamb chops, Chicken Katsu, Korean Bulgogi and Mandarin Chicken.

There is a lunch menu plus a kid's menu with fried rice, lo mein and chicken fingers.  Happy hour runs Monday through Friday from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. and guests can enjoy a selection of cocktails like the Blushing Geisha and Lychee Mojito from $7 to $9. There are also happy hour apps, maki-rolls and sushi on the menu.

click to enlarge Dinner's on at Agnes Cafe & Provisions. - PHOTO BY KIRSTEN GILLIAM
Dinner's on at Agnes Cafe & Provisions.
Photo by Kirsten Gilliam
Agnes Cafe & Provisions, 2132 Bissonet, will launch its dinner service July 13. It opened for breakfast and lunch with counter service June 8, as we reported here in the Press. For the evening, it will transition to table service and candlelight dining.

Appetizers on the dinner menu include Crab Toast on Sourdough (from Magnol French Baking), Piquillo Peppers with morcilla sausage and Smoked Beet Carpaccio. Entrees include a Lamb Kofta Burger, Redfish on the half Shell and a Half Roasted Chicken with turmeric green olive vinaigrette and saffron rice. Everyone is on board the cauliflower train and Agnes Cafe has a Whole Roasted Cauliflower with tahini, pickled onions, dukkah, herbs and cilantro crema. The All Day Plates continue from the morning so guests can still order from the Conservas, Mezze and Cheeses selections.

Perry's Steakhouse and Grille is celebrating its anniversary of over four decades with a special menu for its guests. As part of its signature Rare and Well Done Experience, the $44 four-course menu offers four choices for each course. Guests can first choose from the Individual Starters with options like two Chargrilled Oysters, Two Beef and Bleu, Two skewers of Perry's famous Pork Chop Bites or Two Seafood-stuffed Mushrooms. There are four choices for the soup or salad course, including the Wedge Salad or Artichoke, Potato and Leek Soup, For entrees guests can decide between Perry's famous Pork Chop, Chargrilled Salmon, Steakhouse Brick Chicken and the Vegan Skillet Chopped Steak. Or guests can opt for the Bacon-wrapped Filet Mignon for an additional $10 upcharge. Desserts end the four course meal with a choice of Orange-Vanilla Cheesecake, Flourless Fudgy Chocolate Cake, Chocolate Crunch or Flaming lemon Bar.

The special menu is available for dine-in Monday through Thursday on request. It is available for take-away daily. Tax and gratuity are not included and a 15 percent handling fee will be added for to-go orders. For guests dining in, a $25 wine flight is offered with the special menu.
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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.