Ceviche, from restaurateur Martin Morales and chef Alejandro Bello, has been ten years in the making, and after a series of pop-ups as tasters now has a joyfully decorated home in Soho’s Frith Street.
The atmosphere is loud and buzzing, ‘just how we like it’, says Martin, who is clearly proud and passionate about the restaurant he has created in a nod to the Soho surroundings and his Peruvian heritage.
The 39-year Peruvian-Briton, Morales, has been cooking Peruvian cuisine at home for ten years and decided with his wife two years ago to open a restaurant that ‘reflects the character of Barranco and Soho’.
“I was inspired by the Barranco area of Lima and bustling Soho and I’ve tried to source as many of the ingredients from locally as possible. Certainly all the meat is local, but all the chillies that give the food its distinct flavour are imported from Peru because they are so unique,” he said. “And of course it’s where we get our Pisco.”
Peru’s unique fusion cuisine is a result of far reaching influences: Amerindian, Spanish, African, Chinese and Japanese, French and Portuguese.
“We have a cuisine that’s been 500 years in the making with the traditions of local Inca cuisine. Loosely you could say we have the spices of India, sophistication of France, the aromas of Thailand (and that includes lots of coriander) and techniques from Japan and China.”
A dish from the Ceviche bar is a great way to start. Don Ceviche is rough chunks of fresh, fleshy seabass fillet marinated (cold-cooked) in aji amarillo chilli tiger’s milk (the lime-based marinade used to make the ceviche and which can be drunk after the ceviche is eaten) with citrusy aji limo chilli and a crunchy red onion finish.
Spicy chicken tequenos nibbles, con los dedos, were wanton fritters with a choice of aji de gallina chicken or white cheese and aji Amarillo chilli with rocoto mayo dip, almost Mexican flavour, but in keeping with the fresh and tightly edited menu.
From the ‘anticuchos’, or grilled skewers, was perfectly done steak, succulent and expertly seasoned after being marinated in aji pancha chilli sauce and served with grittle panned potato cake and rocoto sauce – hearty flavour and barbie bliss.
The highlight was meaty and tender pulpo, crisply grilled braised octopus marinated in aji chilli, phenomenally fresh and not in the slightest bit chewy, served with an interesting potato, coriander and olive mash, and a tomato and onion salsa.
The corazon is another speciality: tender beef heart, that was, surprisingly, almost better than the top rump – a Peruvian favourite that should prove a real hit.
In all the skewers were big, bold and very tasty.
The star of the show is the crisp and refreshing Pisco Sour signature cocktail, made from Peru’s clear grape brandy ‘Pisco Quebranta’ with lime, frothy egg white, sugar syrup and Amargo Chuncho bitters – at once sweet, sour and satisfying, it’s a great aperitif and accompaniment to the fresh flavours of the food.
Another winner is sweet Pisco Punch, made with ‘Pisco Italia’, ’secret’ recipe pineapple syrup, lime juice and grapefruit bitters.
The solterito salad of broad beans, choclo corn and botija olives came with the addition of feta and an aji Amarillo chilli vinaigrette, while the encanelado de pisco cinnamon sponge dessert was soaked in Pisco spirit with an artisan dulche de leche chocolate ice cream.
We visited on the first official opening night and there wasn’t an empty seat in the house after two weeks of soft opening, the restaurant riding the wave of enthusiasm for Peruvian food internationally, most notable in the US and Europe. It seems Morales’ decision to remortgage the house to realise his dream might have been the right one.
Print posters and framed photos of Peru’s surfing legacy line the walls, with a ceviche bar taking pride of place in the narrow restaurant and a Pisco display highlighted in the main dining area.
In Lima, Martin recommends the Barranco district for its atmosphere and great restaurants. “Miraflores is great for fine dining and in that area Avenida del Mar is an up-and-coming street with lots of great restaurants,” he said.
“I was in Lima in January and visited 32 restaurants to get a flavour of the dining scene there.”
“I want people to enjoy Pisco the way it’s supposed to be enjoyed.”
Morales comes across as genuine and very passionate about wanting customers to experience authentic Peruvian culture, right down to the artwork on the walls.
Diners can sit at the bar and watch the ceviche being made, but Morales is careful of focusing too much on the bar aspect. “We want people to come and enjoy the whole experience – food, Pisco, music, art and atmosphere. “Some people might think it’s loud in here, but that’s how we like it.”
Even in the restroom, framed pictures celebrate Peru’s surf culture.
Ceviche is a friendly, bustling restaurant, reminiscent of the haunts of the Barranco district in Lima. The expectation is that dishes won’t be enough, guests are encourage to order three or four tapas dishes each to share, but what they lack in size they more than make up for in flavour and filling.
“The goal is to be here in five years time,” he said.
Martin’s top five Lima restaurants
> Chez Wong
> La Paisana
> Amor Amar
> Canta Rana
> Surquillo Market
17 Frith St, London, W1D 4RG
020 7292 2040
Image credit: Paul Winch Furness