Here’s another post from my minion, David. You’ll see why I sent him in my stead.
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Not being familiar with most South African food, I was rather excited when Mary asked me to attend a preview dinner at the new Peri-Peri restaurant in Torrey Highlands. Central to most of North County, it’s off the 56 freeway near the scenic entrance to the Del Mar Mesa Preserve where hoards of avid hikers and cyclists flock to get their cardio on. Tasteful decor abounds with elegant wood tables, heavy curtains and a cozy bar. The low light and earthy colors make the atmosphere classy, comfortable and inviting. It’s the perfect environment for a date night or long dinner with close friends.
Due to its diverse cultural background, South African cuisine is an incredible mix of native ingredients, a wide variety of European flavors and even hints of Southeast Asian influence. The evolution of the food is fascinating, but I’ve misplaced my David Attenborough accent and forgotten my coat with the elbow patches, so I’ll save the history lesson for some other time. My lecture on the virtues of glazed doughnuts is also riveting, which I’m sure my friends will attest to.
With my wife Allison in tow, we ventured forth and were introduced to the menu by William Sussman, the owner. A South African expat that moved to San Diego some 20 years ago, this is his second venture exploring the tastes of his homeland. Kalahari Grill, his first restaurant, opened over 10 years ago and he’s been anxiously gearing up to once again share the foods he so passionately loves.
To begin our evening, we started with the prawn bisque appetizer. A deep orange not unlike that of butternut squash, the rich soup exuded a velvet quality that just melted across the tongue. The sweet butter accentuated the creaminess and was the ideal companion to the bits of fresh prawn sprinkled throughout. At the tail end there is a nice kick of black pepper that is the perfect contrast to the dairy. The basil-infused croutons that were laid out on top, while great in texture, didn’t have much flavor on their own. This is a very nitpicky criticism, however, as Allison loved the soup even though she is not usually a fan of any seafood whatsoever!
With our bellies warmed, we were then introduced to the “Seafood Corn Husks.” I was immediately impressed by the presentation and eager to dig into its depths in search of the tasty seafood morsels. This was a complex dish to really analyze. On one hand, you’ve got the roasted corn with cilantro, red peppers and butter. On the other, you’ve got slices of shrimp and scallops mixed with the sharpness of garlic and lime – a concoction that’s very similar in profile to Mexican ceviche. Allison liked the roasted corn on its own, but kind of tended to pick around the seafood and stick with the sweetness. There are, admittedly, a lot of flavors competing for your attention, so the intricacies of the two sort of get lost. Separate, I’d be a fan of either mix, but together they are little odd and I’d probably skip that dish the next time around.
Filled with two rounds of deliciousness, we were primed for the main courses! First, we were treated to the “Prawns Peri Peri.” Split and grilled with the shell on, they are served over a bed of basmati rice and provide a rather pleasant smoky character. The most important and mysterious part of this plate, though, was the small container of Peri Peri sauce.
A Peri-Peri is a relative to the chili pepper and is native to South Africa. Much of the cuisine revolves around the strong spice and you quickly learn that the pepper is held in high regard. The sauce is derived from a mix of citrus, garlic, oil and, of course, crushed bits of the pepper itself. It’s properly spicy, but also very elegant in execution. The heat, while certainly intense, is more about flavor than blunt force. When used as a dip, it provided a very dynamic flavor that began with a tang, then evolved into an intense heat that quickly ebbed. We were amazed at how quickly the sauce dissipated on the tongue in seconds. This was fantastic, as you could keep dipping the sweet, flame-licked prawns into the sauce without needing an 80’s-style sweatband by the end of the course.
As a crowning point to the whole dinner, we were presented with the “Hot Rock Filet Mignon.” Served on a super-hot slab of stone, you are given the opportunity to take a raw, lightly-seasoned piece of beef and sear it at the table to your liking. Accompanied by three separate seasonings – a green peppercorn sauce, a dry sea salt / black pepper mix, and a dijon mustard – it’s really easy to find something you like. The mustard was too dilute for my liking, though the green peppercorn was a nice, gentle condiment. Overall, Allison and I both agreed that the basic salt and pepper combination was the best. This says a lot about the quality of meat that they serve, as just the very basic seasonings were plenty to have it melt in your mouth. The fries on the side were only acceptable, but were really just garnish when you consider how fantastic the meat is.
Now that our heat level had sufficiently risen several degrees, our tongue was relieved to get some luxurious relief in the form of homemade ice cream. Three very distinct and unique flavors were provided: vanilla, curry and sea salt caramel. Now you’re probably thinking one of these is not like the other. You’d be totally right, and in the most surprising way possible. The curry ice cream was actually quite good! Reminiscent of gingerbread, it’s just sweet enough to accentuate the sophisticated mix of spices. The vanilla was velvety and creamy, while the caramel perfectly replicated the confection’s quality with a texture even better than the candy it originated from. You could literally come visit just for the ice cream and leave happy.
Peri Peri’s menu is exotic and enticing, while being incredibly approachable for those who aren’t familiar with the cuisine. The staff, especially our waitress Diann, are quick to describe their favorites if you’re in need of guidance, or will simply help you find more things to try if you’re already a chili pepper veteran. Regardless, I’d be willing to bet that you’ll find something tasty to perk up your palate.
7845 Highland Village Place, Suite C101
San Diego, CA 92129
Disclaimer: The food featured in this post was complimentary thanks to an invite from BAM Communications. No further compensation was provided and all opinions stated here are the writer’s own.