Chef Chris Loftis Unveils A New Menu At Newly Re-Aimed Peska
The first major difference returning diners will notice when walking into Peska Cocina Latina (previously Peska Seafood Culture), located at 1700 Post Oak Blvd, #1-190 in the Galleria area, is the missing seafood counter that formerly filled the wall opposite the bar. Now, the space serves as a welcoming nook for drinks when waiting on friends to arrive.
The second thing they’ll notice comes later, when they are presented with the revamped menu developed by executive chef Chris Loftis, who joined Peska in early June. No stranger to the Houston food scene, Loftis was most recently at The Pearl and Killen’s Steakhouse. Now, he’s bringing his unique brand of creativity and rich-yet-bright flavors to Peska. He unveiled the first edition of the new menu at a media event on Tuesday, August 1.
Loftis emphasizes that his menu is not intended to be “authentic” Mexican and Latin American, albeit he draws on those flavors and techniques. In fact, many of the dishes have their roots in the recipes of La Trainera, Peska’s parent company in Mexico. The restaurants are owned and operated by the Ysita family. (To be clear, Loftis is an employee of Jade Hospitality Group, the operating partner in Peska. Jade Hospitality Group also owns Grazia Italian Kitchen with two locations in Pearland and Clear Lake, as well as Gracia Mexican Cantina in Corpus Christi.)
Loftis has retained several of the essential dishes from Peska’s previous menu, including chilled Ceviche Yucateco (octopus, shrimp, grouper, habanero, lime juice, and avocado) and Tiradito (snapper or octopus, yuzu, lime juice, red onion, Serrano, and cucumber). The imported, high quality seafood is what drives the $17 and $19 price tags, respectively. A daily offering of sashimi is also available as well, plus fresh fare like the $12 Organic Pea Soup (sautéed peas, leeks, and crisp bacon) that is based on another Ysita family recipe.
Beyond the mainstays noted above, Loftis morphs heritage with modern variations for an approachable—and deeply satisfying—homage to Latin cuisine. He says that though the current menu focuses on Mexico, don’t be surprised if dishes from Guatemala, Peru and other Latin American locales are added. A prime example of combining tradition with fresh design is the $15 White Fish Guacamole:the dish is presented at the table under a smoke-filled dome; when the server lifts the dome smoke wafts out in a swirl like an invitation for the first bite. Diners can break up the accompanying crisp, fried corn tortillas and use them for gathering up house-smoked cod, creamy avocado, tomatoes, cilantro and onion. It’s a dish that highlights the best features of both typical white fish salad and standard guacamole.
Another item on the botanas, or snack, section is the $16 Tostada de Jaiba: two crispy rounds of corn tortilla topped with chunks of crab meat, lime juice, avocado, pickled onion, cilantro and ground chipotle set upon chocolate-brown huitlacoche (corn fungus) blended with spices and other unnamed “goodies.” Loftis based the tostada on street food versions he sampled in Mexico.
Another swoon-worthy and shareable starter is the Cachete’s Frito, a $13 flavor bomb featuring fork-tender fried pork cheeks tossed in rich adobo sauce (Loftis compares it to hot wings without the kick) and served over smooth corn puree with pickled carrots and queso fresco.
Entrées cover a range of notes hitting elements of both sea and land, often on one plate. Take the Callo de Hacha in which a line of seared scallops parade over Loftis’ version of esquites, or Mexican street corn. He employs a microplane (a very fine grater) to sprinkle tiny shreds of Spanish chorizo over everything to lend a subtle hit of smoke; he calls it “Mexico meets Spain with scallops in between.”
The Costillas Cortas gives diners a hands-on experience in a “build your own taco” format that’s elevated thanks to a bone-in smoked short rib. It’s accompanied by red onions, cilantro, queso fresco, tomatillo salsa and warm flour tortillas. Both the scallops and short rib are priced at just under $30. A little more expensive than that is the whole Branzino, available roasted, fried, or salt-baked for $38. It comes with earthy guajillo salsa, jalapeno cilantro rice and Mexican squash. The version we were served substituted a lightly dressed and zippy arugula salad as the side. Plan for a 25-minute wait due to preparation time.
If room remains, indulge in the sugary pillows of housemade doughnuts. The powdered sugar-dusted, bite-sized treats are stuffed with dulce de leche filling and come with a sinful side of chocolate ganache and housemade vanilla ice cream. A serving of five donuts is $8.
The current menu is available at least through the end of August, says Loftis, but expect to see weekly rotations thereafter.
Jade Hospitality Partner Adrian Hembree says that Peska’s image has suffered a bit over the past 18 months, which is one of the reasons for refocusing on the history and culture of the Ysita family’s original vision. Now that the reimagined menu has taken shape, it’s comforting to see the kitchen embrace new directions while holding onto the principles of quality, freshness and fun that gave the original concept its allure. Though it’s too early to make long term predictions, the new menu certainly seems to be a positive step towards success.