** (2 stars) Ceviche
921-J Ellsworth Dr., Silver Spring
Open: Monday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., Saturday 5 to 11 p.m., Sunday 5 to 10 p.m. Bar open to 1 a.m. every night. AE, V, MC. No smoking. Metro: Silver Spring. Prices: appetizers $5 to $9.50, entrees $11 to $24. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $50 per person.
Long before you see Ceviche, you spot what's big, bland and soulless surrounding the new South American restaurant: a Red Lobster to the left, a Potbelly to the right -- a cornucopia of familiar corporate brands that can afford big rents and squeeze out local, independently owned shops and restaurants. Neat but generic, the stretch of downtown Silver Spring in which Ceviche finds itself reveals so little sense of place that a visitor could be forgiven for thinking he was strolling through an outdoor mall in Orlando, Dallas or San Diego.
Climb the mosaic-tiled stairs to the upper reaches of the complex next to the AFI Silver Theatre, though, and you'll find a handful of places to eat, huddled together like unwanted company, that aren't instantly recognizable. They include a Thai restaurant, a Vietnamese place and Ceviche. The last is the latest in a collection of fashion-forward watering holes from restaurateur Mauricio Fraga-Rosenfeld, whose realm encompasses Chi-Cha Lounge, Gazuza and Mate in Washington and Gua-Rapo in Arlington.
With its hip setting and eclectic menu, Ceviche looks like a member of the family. The front of the venue offers a spacious and uncluttered lounge whose picture windows look onto the street action below. Clusters of low tables and smart red stools make for fun huddles, but equally inviting is a communal table and a long bar, tended to by congenial guys who help you make a pick from the cocktail list by serving a sample of whatever you're curious about. The drinks gather together some of the best of the liquid pleasures of South America. Peru is represented by the pisco sour, Brazil by the rum-ignited caipirinha. Of course there are margaritas; take your pick from a classic or one brightened with blood orange juice. I've saved the best for last: The "Amor Prohibido" mixes tequila, passion fruit juice, ginger and jalapeno, a gang of ingredients that leaves a fiery, fruity wake in its path. If you like fire -- and ice -- in your beverages, this one's for you.
When a restaurant uses a single dish to announce itself, a diner can expect that the food in question is going to be a highlight of a meal. That's sometimes the case at Ceviche, whose namesake -- raw seafood briefly tossed with citrus juice and other enhancers -- can be sampled multiple ways. Though the menu indicates a choice of "fish, shrimp or mixed seafood" as a base, if you don't specify you tend to get only small chunks of fish, typically red snapper or halibut. Ask for your ceviche "Natural," and it comes dressed with cilantro, threads of peppers and plenty of lime. Hotter still is the "Peruano," fired up with hot peppers. The mildest ceviche, the "Hondureno," is creamy with coconut milk and faintly sweet.
There's lots more than fish to start with at Ceviche. In one fine appetizer, roast potatoes and bronzed garlic are topped with a creamy blanket of yellow pepper puree, ricotta cheese and peanuts. In a second, potatoes team up with slices of spicy chorizo for a hearty, rustic and very shareable snack. Chicken wings assume a vaguely foreign accent with chipotle in their seasoning, but they're nevertheless tame -- bland, even -- and the Caesar salad is best for the diced, fried yuca that replaces the traditional croutons in the toss of romaine and powdery cheese. Better: the baseball-size chicken croquette, shredded dark meat mixed with capers inside a crisp shell of Japanese bread crumbs and offered on a plate with a slick of subtle red pepper-tomato sauce for dredging.
The kitchen isn't doing a lot of acrobatics. Eat here a couple times, and you'll notice, as I did, that a few flavor boosters are used again and again. The mince of cilantro, onion and garlic moistened with lemon juice and olive oil ("cilantro mojo") atop the plump sardines tastes much like the cilantro sauce slathered on an entree of grilled salmon. Similarly, the aforementioned yellow pepper sauce that brightens a starter of potatoes makes a repeat appearance on a main course of tender baked-then-fried shrimp. This is not a bad thing, but what it means is less variety than you think when you first open the menu, kind of like the endless Chinese menu that uses a few sauces or techniques to make it appear to be deeper than it is.
Ceviche is a generous restaurant: Even the roast half-chicken looked like it had stopped at Gold's Gym before it got to me. "Hey, we're Latins!" an engaging waiter said after noting my wide eyes. "We like to eat!" Marinated in cumin, oregano, bay leaf and beer, the big bird is seductively seasoned and cooked so that the flesh falls easily from the bones. Flank steak is fine, but my preference among the other meat entrees is pork, particularly pork rib made succulent with lime-braised onions. Rounding out the entrees is a choice of sides, including delicious fried plantains, cilantro-laced boiled yuca and oiled white rice.
The weakest link in the chain is dessert. While the selections are mostly in keeping with the South American spirit of the restaurant, their execution is not. A wine-macerated pear reveals deep flavor but is so hard that it's a challenge to cut the fruit, even with a sharp knife. The worst offender is tres leches. Typically, I adore that dessert -- sponge cake soaked in milk and cream -- every bite a soft and sweet nod to the nursery. But Ceviche serves a tres leches that appears to use a muffin from a vending machine with some milk poured over it. The result is bland, sad and out of place on the otherwise pleasing menu.
That still leaves plenty to praise. The same bar that mixes fresh-tasting cocktails also pours some nice South American wines, at budget-friendly prices. The dining room, separated from the bar by a grid, adds up to a stylish oasis of broad tables, lipstick-red chairs and votives set into the walls. And if you like music with your dinner, this sizzling retreat dishes out live guitar performances on Wednesday through Saturday nights beginning about 8:30. With any luck, Ceviche will start a chain reaction in its neighborhood that has nothing to do with the corporate logos that now dominate the block.
Nina Seavey and her husband recently found themselves on the patio at Mon Ami Gabi in Bethesda, where part of the charm includes "a cute little cart with an umbrella over it" from which waiters can pluck wine bottles for single servings, the Takoma Park reader reports in an e-mail. The couple each ordered a red wine by the glass. "While the evening was nice, the day had been quite warm and when we tasted the wine, it was hot," writes Seavey. "We asked the waiter to replace the glasses with wine that was being stored indoors. He argued that 'many customers know that wine should be served at room temperature,'" to which Seavey and her husband responded that the late summer air was well above room temperature. While the server was "very miffed," he "begrudgingly got us another glass of wine from the bar indoors but was rude the entire rest of the dinner," according to Seavey. For an explanation, I contacted David Russell, a manager at the French restaurant. He explained that the cart -- which holds white wines in an oval tub of ice ringed with unchilled bottles of red wine -- typically is covered with linens on warm days and brought inside during especially hot weather. As for the rude waiter, Russell apologized for the Seaveys' less-than-pleasant experience ("Unfortunately, that's not how we trained him") and asked me to put him in touch with them.
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