Just as the fashion industry decided that tribal prints were coming back in many, many seasons ago, so the movers-and-shakers in the food world predicted, mid-2011, that South American cuisine was going to be big in summer 2012.
And sure enough, with the first sniff of spring, half-Peruvian and half-English restaurateur Martin Morales has launched the much-anticipated Soho restaurant Ceviche, bringing pisco, tiger’s milk and lúcuma to central London.
Ceviche has opened in an exciting, but somewhat terrifying time for restaurants where popularity can quickly become the blight of successful establishments—as Skye Gyngell discovered, dubbing her Michelin star as a ‘curse’ when her low-key, neighbourhood café became jam-packed with punters expecting haute cuisine—something she never set out to do.
While some establishments have buckled under Britain’s recent obsession with food, others have relished it. The likes of Pitt Cue Co, Spuntino and MeatLIQUOR have used their cult status to cultivate queues round the corner, whisking food away and flipping tables with gay abandon. Great for them. Annoying for us.
So I was worried that this new addition to the Soho restaurant scene would replicate the trend, and that my first taste of ceviche in London would be tainted by hungry diners hovering over my table, and impatient waiters rushing me through my meal.
But unlike the explosion of hard, tattooed, streetwise, New York-inspired restaurants, Ceviche is warm-blooded, and neighbourly. Smiling waiters kept us topped us topped up with tap water, picking platters kept things informal—and did I mention that you can book. Joy of joys—a dining experience that doesn’t start with a 30-minute wait in the cold! If it hadn’t been such commonplace before the six-month blip of non-reservation becoming cool, then I’d say it was revolutionary.
The restaurant itself has a black exterior—like Ronnie Scott’s opposite—making it easily missed on the somewhat bleak-by-Soho-standards Firth Street, top and tailed by a Nandos and a Café Nero. But stick your nose to the window, and you’ll be drawn inside by the front bar, where punters can enjoy a cocktail and pick at nibbles or ceviche platters while they chat.
The restaurant at the back channels a grown-up South American vibe—no Carman Miranda-inspired pineapple in sight, but retro prints, elegantly tiles walls and a mixture of high and low tables designed to seat around 40 diners.
The menu starts with a lip-smackingly sharp and deliciously limey array of ceviche dishes with tiger’s milk. But don’t panic—this isn’t sourced from London Zoo (is it even possible to milk a tiger?)—but it’s the name given to the lime, lemon, chilli and onion marinades which ‘cook’ the slivers of raw seabass, octopus and salmon in their acidity.
Move through the menu onto main sharing dishes from grilled skewers of rump steak or chilli and chicken to a ‘classics’ list featuring Peruvian corn cake and mixed seafood rice with pisco.
And then the desserts – oh, the desserts – pumpkin and sweet potato doughnuts with spiced sugar syrup and the extraordinary lúcuma ice cream with crumbled alfajores. The piquant pisco cocktails compliment the picking platters, and there’s also a decent selection of South American wines on offer staying true to the theme.
I left thinking that ceviche could really catch on—it gives you the same self-righteousness of sushi, but the marinades make it tangier and punchier and more exciting without whacking on extra calories. And pisco has always been one of my favourite spirits—(it’s always mystified me why it’s so hard to come across)—even if the pisco sours could have done with a slightly frothier head in my humble opinion.
The only sticking problem was the price. I didn’t leave feeling hungry, but I certainly didn’t leave feeling full as my purse strings limited the number of dishes I could try.
The ceviche platters range from £5.75 to £7.50, but they recommend three or four per person, which means that the bill quickly tots up—especially if you were to include a bottle of wine, which starts at a punchy £19. The other peculiarity is the pricing of vegetable sides—£4.75 is a crazy for a piece of corn or a plate of asparagus.
It’s a shame, because I loved Ceviche. I sat next to a South American couple who were visiting for the second time—quite an accolade seeing as it’s only been open for a week.
All in all it’s a great place, and I left smiling—let’s hope that the pricing is just a teething problem made by a newly-opened restaurant, and if enough reviews bring up the glitch, then they might think about introducing a cheaper bottle of house wine and a couple of better priced dishes.
17 Frith Street,
(visit their website to make a reservation).