Peru’s Soho embassy
There are only a handful of Peruvian restaurants in London and the simply named Ceviche is one of them. Located in the heart of Soho, Ceviche’s interior is tastefully decorated with just the right amount of toned down kitsch hanging from the walls, although the effect can go into overdrive when the Spanish language background music is on. The rectangular dining room is moodily and dimly lit in the evenings. Insist on sitting at one of the normal tables though – the bar-style raised tables and stools are incredibly uncomfortable. This is especially true if you’re a short arse – the stools are too high but their foot rests and the tables themselves are too low.
As can be guessed from its name, Ceviche has a reasonably large selection of ceviches – dishes where raw fish and seafood has been marinated in citrus juice and chilli. On my first visit I started off with the Don Ceviche a dish where seabass has been marinated in tiger’s milk and served with extra lashings of chilli and red onions. The fairly generous serving of raw fish was firm and fresh, although it was drowned out slightly by the zesty, milky, only mildly chilli marinade although the red onions did provide some extra sharpness here and there. It’s not quite perfect, but it’s easily the best ceviche I’ve had in London.
Potatoes are so ingrained in British cuisine (i.e. chips) it’s hard to remember that the humble tuber originated in Peru and introduced to Europe by the Spanish. Ceviche has a couple of potato cake dishes including the Causa Mar. The texture of the potato cake (or patty if that helps you) was quite unexpected – it had a sticky, gooey mash-like texture with a maize-like hint to its flavour. It’s addictively moreish, although the topping of prawns, squid and avocado was disappointing since it tasted like a prawn cocktail. A less viscous, less sweet prawn cocktail admittedly, but without any hint of avocado and dominated mostly by prawns it seemed like a rather dull accompaniment to the moreish potato cake.
Some dishes practically jump out at you from the menu and grilled beef hearts is one of them. The meat is very tender and slightly smoky with an unsurprisingly offaly taste to them and is served with an addictively creamy and spicy dipping sauce. The skewers of heart are served on a bed of huge, twenty pence coin-sized corn kernels which are firm with a sweet, creamy taste that’s also quite delightful.
Since many of the dishes are tapas-sized and I was feeling especially ravenous, I dived back into the menu and ordered more. The Alianza Lima ceviche combines prawns, squid, octopus and giant corn kernels with the fish of the day but it was a little underwhelming. The fish of the day turned out to be sea bass, so this dish ended up resembling the Don Ceviche a fair bit. The braised chunks of octopus were a little soft, but still very meaty and went surprisingly well with those addictive giant corn kernels. Sadly, the squid and prawns had been cooked to unremarkable effect. Although this may be authentic, it is still disappointing given some of the beautiful things that can be done with raw squid and prawns.
I devoured more braised octopus, this time skewered and served with a creamy tomato sauce that had a pleasingly hot and spicy kick. The octopus chunks were again a little bit too soft for my liking, but there was a herby hint to them that made up for this to a large extent.
I finished off my meal with the picarones – pumpkin and sweet potato doughnuts served with a spiced sugar syrup. The syrup was very sweet and malty and proved to be ideal dunking material for the slightly chewy doughnuts. The doughnuts themselves were surprisingly tame though – apart from slightly more depth in sweetness, they’re surprisingly bland.
I don’t drink alcohol so I can’t comment on the fairly extensive selection of pisco (a grape brandy) and pisco-based cocktails. I washed my meal down with some guanábana (also known as soursop or custard apple) juice instead. It’s less viscous than the variety commonly available in supermarkets, but still retains the fruit’s distinctive creamy, custardish flavour.
Going back for seconds
My first meal at Ceviche left me with some mixed feelings, but luckily I had the opportunity to go back – this time with the help of The Lensman. As before, the service was chatty, friendly, informative and efficient. The Lensman knocked back a bottle of Cusquena beer, which he found to be a pleasant if unremarkable lager. I refreshed myself with the chica morada, an oddly tangy and cloying purple maize drink.
We shared a pair of ceviches between us. The first was the Sakura Maru, a dish reflecting the Japanese community in Peru and almost certainly named after the ship that first brought Japanese immigrants to Peru. This dish consists of thin slices of salmon in a tiger’s milk apparently enriched with satsumas, mirin and soy sauce. Despite these alleged embellishments, the tiger’s milk didn’t taste that different from the zesty tiger’s milk used in the other ceviches. The fish itself was also heavily refrigerated – it should really have been served at room temperature to bring out the salmon’s butteriness. Such a shame – following poor experiences with salmon ceviches elsewhere I’m starting to think that salmon is ill-suited for such use.
Our second ceviche was more successful. The oddly-named Barranco I Love You is a seabass ceviche, so it’s very similar to the Don Ceviche but with the sharp red onions replaced by sweet, crunchy corn kernels which were reminiscent of popcorn. Although delicious, they seemed out of place next to the firm, fresh seabass in the zesty, milky marinade.
My various meals at Hawksmoor have spoiled me when it comes to steak to such an extent that steak at almost everywhere else seems like a pale imitation at best. The tender skewers of well-done steak here are by no means bad, but they’re rather bland and lacking in character compared to the best Hawksmoor cuts of beef. They’re best enjoyed when dunked in the creamy, mildly spicy dipping sauce.
Neither the Lensman or I were expecting much from the Peruvian corn cake, but it turned out to be one of the highlights of our meal. Apparently infused with feta cheese, the corn cake looks like a Spanish tortilla but has a buttery, eggy taste and a very fluffy, wispy souffle-like texture all of its own. Superb.
Another unexpected surprise were the Yucas, chips from cassava rather than potato. Remarkably grease free, these chips had a very crisp exterior, but with a densely-packed yet soft interior that had a mildly sweet and nutty flavour. They’re one of my favourite chips ever, possibly rivalling Hawksmoor’s generally superb triple cooked chips.
The Lensman was satiated enough to skip dessert and went straight for a double espresso which arrived as a latte-sized portion although it wasn’t any stronger for it (which is probably a good thing given the Lensman’s fragile constitution). I had no such qualms and went for the lúcuma ice cream. I’ve never had lúcuma fruit, but the ice cream here had an unexpectedly starchy, butterscotch-like taste to it. The topping of crumbled aljafore biscuits didn’t leave much of an impression. This isn’t a bad dessert overall, but it’s not as distinctive as it sounds on paper.
While the prospect of Peruvian-style raw fish is the headline dish at Ceviche, at least a couple ceviches are just minor variations on the Don Ceviche while the sakura maru isn’t worth bothering with. It turns out that some of the cooked savoury dishes are the real attraction from the beef heart skewers to the corn and potato cakes. Ceviche isn’t perfect but it’s still worth going to, if only because it’s refreshingly different and to encourage other ex-pat Peruvians to continue bringing their country’s interesting cuisine to London.
Address: 17 Frith Street, Soho, London W1D 4RG
Phone: 020 7292 2040
Opening Hours: seven days a week noon-23.30.
Total cost for one person: £25-50 approx (you’ll pay closer to £25 if you’re less of a glutton than I am).