Tuesday, 27 March 2012
My friend who came with me to Ceviche said that the food there is "nothing like anything I had in Peru". This, apparently, is a good thing. I'm sure a poor backpacker doesn't see the very best of a country's cuisine but his over-riding memories of mealtimes were of the same bland mush trotted out at whichever restaurant he happened to choose, washed down with enough Pisco Sours to make you not care. In a moment of misplaced bravado one night he tried the "national dish" - deep-fried guinea pig or cuy. What arrived was an oblong lump of batter with a pair of sharp incisor teeth protruding alarmingly from the front. The meat was greasy and tough, "like how you might imagine a deep-fried rat might taste", which I suppose isn't that far from the truth.
Fortunately, there was no cuy on the menu at Ceviche. There are, though, Pisco Sours - in many variations. They were all new to me, even the classic, but once I got over the alarming amount of egg white, which frothed up the alcohol into a kind of uncooked meringue, I decided I was a fan. Better still was something called Pasión de Ceviche, containing honey and passion fruit and making a sophisticated, smooth drink out of what is presumably quite an unruly base spirit. The bar staff at Ceviche are as pleasant as you could want and the bar itself is a very attractive place to spend the early evening, all shiny surfaces and mirrors. By the time we decamped to the restaurant at the back, then, we were really enjoying ourselves.
I'm not setting this story up for a dramatic fall - we did continue to enjoy ourselves for the remainder of the evening - it's just that not all of the food lived up to the initial exciting, exotic South American promise made by the bar. First to arrive were the titular Ceviches, a sea bass version, which was possibly just slightly on the sour side for my tastes but nevertheless powerfully flavoured with chilli and crunchy red onions, and one with various bits of seafood, best of which were a couple of juicy prawns. There is little not to like about marinated raw fish in lime and coriander, and we devoured them with gusto, but at £7 each for a couple of teeny plates of food, it didn't really feel like value.
And neither did two skewers of grilled steak, not just because you got so little food for your £7.50 but because they were so imperceptibly gently marinated they may as well just have been completely undressed. They were timed well to slightly pink inside, but the meat itself wasn't particularly high quality - rather livery and mealy - and the overall effect was a bit dispiriting. We really enjoyed the spicy mayo sauce (using a kind of chilli called rocoto) that came with them, though.
Something called choclo had a fantastic flavour, buttery and rich and spiked with fresh cheese and more red onion, but was £3.75 for a thin, 3 inch wide corn cake. And a small bowl of rice topped with a confit duck thigh (and yet more red onion) was admittedly wonderfully done, the duck being tender and full of flavour, and the rice nicely seasoned, but this was barely a starter sized portion for a whopping £9.80.
Apart from the steak, then, the food at Ceviche is good. Service was pitch-perfect too, not too friendly and not too stuffy, all young and enthusiastic and trendily-attired in that New Soho informal way pioneered by Polpo and Spuntino. And perhaps we're partly to blame for letting our new-found Pisco Sour obsession inflate the bill (we had 4 of the damn things, and they're £5.50 a pop) but at nearly £70 for really not that much food, this is not a restaurant that either produces anything with enough of a wow factor to justify the prices, or serves decent enough stuff at a price point low enough to make you feel good about it. It's an enjoyable enough spot to while away an evening, but given the astonishing level of the competition in Soho (the wonderful Koya is literally opposite), I can't see anyone returning once the initial novelty of being able to say "let's pop out for a Peruvian" has worn off. My advice: go early evening for a Pisco Sour and a bowl of cancha (crunchy fried corn) and then eat somewhere else. You won't be short of options.