Ceviche calls the cocktail Amor Prohibido. The beverage presumably derives its name from the intercontinental three-way between ginger-infused passion fruit, tequila, and Serrano peppers—an East-meets-Southwest commingling that could definitely lead to other odd couplings if consumed in large enough quantities. Never mind that “passion fruit” apparently owes its name to the crucifixion, not to any rhino-horn-esque aphrodisiacal properties drawn from the tart juice. Dubbing the drink “forbidden love,” in Spanish no less, is Ceviche’s winking acknowledgement that the branding of a drink matters as much as its contents.
It’s not listed anywhere on the menu, but style is Ceviche’s main ingredient. The downtown Silver Spring establishment exudes it: black metal light fixtures shaped like monstrous jellyfish hover over low-slung lounge tables and votive candles flicker on small mosaic shelves embedded in a lipstick-red wall in the dimly lit dining room. You’d never know that just outside of Ceviche’s double glass doors lies a functional strip of chain-intensive eateries whose taste in interior design begins and ends with one question: Can you wipe baby puke off that?
Ceviche is the latest offering from Mauricio Fraga-Rosenfeld, the shaven-headed, Ecuadorian-born marketer/furniture designer/idea man who seems to squeeze out grandly themed lounges and restaurants at assembly-line speed. During a span of 10 years, Fraga-Rosenfeld has launched no fewer than eight hipster watering holes and/or eateries, including Chi-Cha Lounge, Bambule, Gua-Rapo, and Maté. Another is on the way.
Fraga-Rosenfeld, according to his Web site, Latinconcepts.com, wants to spread the gospel of Latin American culture as filtered through the urban American experience. Or something like that. It sounds highfalutin, and if the truth be told, Ceviche’s embrace of Nuevo Latino cuisine sometimes feels too self-conscious, as if the kitchen spends as much time devising slick pairings (cases in point: Caesar salad with yucca croutons or mussels with tequila and chorizo) as it does perfecting the more meaty dishes on its menu.
Style and substance are not necessarily enemies forever locked in a steel-cage death match. Sometimes they join forces in delicious ways. Consider Ceviche’s namesake dish. The restaurant offers five different seviches, most of which can be ordered with either fish, shrimp, or mixed seafood. The best is the tuna seviche, a dish that travels east, not south. Thick chunks of sashimi-grade ahi tuna, dappled with wasabi-flavored flying fish roe, lounge in a square translucent bowl atop a thin layer of ginger-soy-lime sauce.
But here’s the thing about a restaurant that peddles style: Its quest to attain the holy grail of unpredictability can cause it to overreach. Promise fusion cuisine, and the result can be a chef who overmanipulates simple foods. Culinary pretensions can also cause an odd disconnect between clientele and cuisine, attracting the kind of purified-palate customer who may not appreciate the regal use of peasant ingredients.
Take the slow-roasted pork rib marinated in pineapple and garlic and slathered with lime-braised red onions. If this entree were available as, say, a special from an ambitious Midwestern steakhouse, it would likely be a hit. The meat itself, cut from the fatty undersides of the pig, releases waves of moist, buttery flavors in your mouth. But because this dish is served in such a trendy, self-conscious environment as Ceviche, it routinely suffers the slings and arrows of outraged diners who fail to understand the flavor-imparting importance of all the fat that encircles their delicious rib.
The half-chicken marinated in cumin and beer—and roasted to perfection—should cause no such alarm from those who want their palates tickled but their arteries untouched. The chicken’s crispy, charred exterior and succulent meat are sprinkled with tiny chopped pieces of raw marinated red onions, which gives the meat a pungent punch. Heat, unfortunately, is the only thing that comes across in the chile relleno, a poblano pepper stuffed with refried beans and queso fresco, a concoction that lies like a bloated corpse in a pool of fiery red guajillo sauce. The entire dish has the consistency of mush and the taste of hot salty paste.
If any one item exemplifies Ceviche’s conceptual overreach, it’s the deconstructed guava cheesecake on the dessert menu. Two flaccid dollops of pinkish cream-cheese custard, spiked unattractively with guava bits, are plunked onto a sawdust bed of salty graham-cracker crumbs, each dollop pierced with a tiny sliver of manchego. If you can manage to measure each spoonful before it reaches your mouth—my best guess is about two-thirds guava custard to one-third graham cracker crumbs—you’re fine. If you miscalculate and your spoon leans too heavily on crumbs, stop eating and take an immediate gulp of water before the dessert fully registers among your taste buds. You’ll thank me.
Ceviche exhibits the awkwardness you’d expect from a 5-month-old operation, but its hiccups are pronounced because, at present, two chefs split time in the kitchen: Mexican-born Cristina Kiewek (former sous chef at Oyamel) prepares the menu and wears the big toque, but Peru native Javier Angeles-Beron (formerly of Café Saint-Ex) assumes the lead some nights. Angeles-Beron says his role at Ceviche is really to develop a “Novoandina” cuisine—think pre-Columbian Incas meet Escoffier—for Fraga-Rosenfeld’s next venture in culinary fusion.
The kitchen dynamic raises a troubling question: Is Fraga-Rosenfeld’s seemingly insatiable quest for the new-new thing somehow hurting his latest operation in Silver Spring? I wonder, for instance, how things will be for Kiewek once she doesn’t have to share a kitchen with someone who’s reading from a different cookbook. From the look and taste of things, she has a fertile culinary imagination that will sprout many excellent things. She just needs more time to play head chef on her own. Style can be hurried, but quality takes time.
Ceviche, 921-J Ellsworth Drive, Silver Spring, (301) 608-0081.—Tim Carman
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