South Africa meets South Asia at Peri Peri Grill House
It isn’t the smell of smoke that greets you when you walk through the door of Peri Peri Grill House in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn; it’s the sight of it. The hardworking grill in the open kitchen exhales smoke in billows that dissipate quickly into the dining room, but not before leaving a defining mark on all the food it touches.
Chicken wings, for example, are flame-grilled, with the blackened bits to prove it, and slicked with peri peri sauce that hums with citrus and spice. But the smoke is what sticks with you.
Peri peri, or piri piri, is a chile cultivated in southeastern Africa, with roots in Brazil. The pepper — hotter than a jalapeño but not quite as searing as a Scotch bonnet — was carried to Africa and Asia by Portuguese traders, who tempered it with vinegar and lemon juice to create the sauce of the same name.
At this small but tidy restaurant that opened in April 2018 on Malcolm X Boulevard, peri peri proves its versatility as a marinade, a table sauce and a dry spice blend. “You can have it in many ways,” said the owner, Sohaib Malik. “That’s the beauty of it.
Malik, 33, was born in Jhelum, Pakistan, but has spent most of his life in Midwood, Brooklyn, where his family immigrated in 1995. It was his wife, Ruschke Malik, a native of South Africa, who introduced him to peri peri.
“She is the one who first took me to Nando’s,” Malik said, referring to the Johannesburg-based restaurant chain that specialises in peri peri chicken. “I thought, why isn’t it here? I saw something missing in the market.”
At Peri Peri Grill House, you can order the unfailingly juicy chicken in quarters or halves, or even in strips that are stuffed into a wrap, but the topography of the wings — full of crooks and crevices — is best suited for such a clinging sauce.
The meat is bathed in a transformative mixture of dried ground chiles, lemon juice, garlic and a blend of spices for up to 24 hours before it is par-roasted (to save time during service) and then heaved onto the grill. Finally, it is basted with a choice of six sauces, from a timid garlic-and-herb to a more piercing “extra-hot.” At one notch below the top of the scale, the “hot” version is the most balanced of them all.
Malik’s kitchen serves grilled lamb chops, a hat tip to his South Asian background. The generously thick chops are coated with a hybrid spice blend before they hit the grill. “It’s like a salsa and masala combined, with some peri peri in it.” Malik said.
The result is buttery, tender meat with abundant flavour in each bite. Malik doesn’t want to be pigeonholed into selling grilled lamb chops, but he could probably make a good living at it.
All the meat at the restaurant is certified halal. “Muslims don’t have a lot of halal options,” said Malik, who is Muslim. Whether you follow those dietary rules or not, there is a perfectly good burger, topped with ribbons of caramelised onion and a bun slathered in peri peri mayonnaise.
Among the side dishes, peri peri-seasoned French fries are predictably satisfying, with an electric citric tang. The spice is also sprinkled over a neat mound of yellow rice, adding a welcome tartness to the heavy hand of cumin.
A handful of milkshakes are also available. The most expensive option, the Ferrero Rocher, blitzes the chocolate hazelnut orbs with vanilla ice cream. It is just the thing to extinguish any lingering heat.
In an unexpected turn, the menu lists a kale salad, a quinoa bowl and not one but two veggie burgers (the plant-based Beyond Burger and a falafel burger). It’s ambitiously diverse, and seems to be resonating with this equally eclectic neighbourhood.
“I didn’t think it was going to work,” Malik said. “But we’ve been busy since day one.”
Most nights, the waits (reservations are not accepted) stretch to 30 minutes. The steady stream of customers who file into the restaurant, a perfect cross-section of the neighbourhood, is undeterred. The kitchen can handle it; over the grill, tongs snap and flip as the smoke swirls in the air.
Peri Peri Grill House
235 Malcolm X Blvd. (Hancock Street), Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn; 917-966-8614.
Recommended: Peri peri chicken, in any of its various forms; lamb chops; beef burger; peri peri fries.
Drinks and Wine: Bottled sodas; flavored sparkling waters; blended milkshakes; no alcohol.
Prices: $6 to $20.
Open: Tuesday to Sunday for lunch and dinner.
Reservations: Not accepted.
Wheelchair Access: The entrance is up a slight incline. There is a small step before the bathroom, which is equipped with a handrail.
© 2019 New York Times News Service