7845 Highland Village Place, Suite C101, Carmel Valley
Eater — armed with nothing but a single, snarky graphic — fairly well explained the collective sigh of resignation so many of us heave on entering a new restaurant: we hope to see something inspired grace the menu, only to be greeted by yet another farm-fresh plate of grilled peppers, lightly dressed ahi tuna, “fancy” taco, or braised short rib served with an alternative root vegetable.
Hence, some small excitement over Peri-Peri, a South African restaurant with a terribly inconvenient location just off the 56 in the Torrey Highlands development.
Informed partly by indigenous culture, but mostly by immigrant communities from all over the world, South African cuisine has the potential to be very good, and a departure from the ordinary. Peri-Peri claims to make good use of the eponymous chili pepper, and the kitchen showcases some of South Africa’s best-known foods, but the results are mixed. The restaurant doesn’t meet its own potential.
The carrot ginger soup ($4 for a cup), which could be a warm and redolent dish, instead wants enhancement. Shrimp and scallops, cooked in a corn husk with peppers and corn for $9, tastes fishy and indistinct.
Saag curry ($13), a dish borrowed from the many Indian immigrants living in Africa, makes good use of chickpeas and comes with Peri-Peri’s best achievement, a side of delicate basmati rice — but the end result lacks pop.
Boerewors (sausage, $13) and sosaties (kebabs, $15) are South African dishes with the potential to shine, but Peri-Peri’s seem so-so at best. The dried-out wors sits on pretty-good mashed potatoes. The dried apricots skewered with sosaties dominate the dish, easily outstripping the underwhelming meat.
Even a ribeye steak — grilled, seasoned, and served with a blue-cheese sauce for $25 — is just OK.
The pity of all this is that Peri-Peri could be great, yet it commits the greater crime of being meh. The underlying ideas, like skewered meats and sausages, not to mention shrimp in various preparations, should be difficult to mess up. But the restaurant just doesn’t pull it off. The fair prices and the promise of novelty would make Peri-Peri a worthwhile trip, but only if the food was as good as it should be.