I like Ceviche’s right now; I think I’m going to love it in six months. The new restaurant offers Panamanian cuisine largely centered around the eponymous bits of fish “cooked” via citrus marinade. The cuisine is bright, light and tropical. It’s delicious. And I’ll like it a whole lot more when the mercury passes 80.
Ceviche sits in a tiny building on Wrightsville Avenue, in the same shopping strip as Jerry’s. Parking and seating are scant, but it’s worth pushing to be first in line.
The staff is lovely. I visited during an hour way too early for dinner and far too late for lunch. Two friendly servers were trading good-hearted barbs with a pair of college football fans who were enjoying beers and scallops.
I opened with a signature nonalcoholic house drink called “Fresco de Ensalada,” a greenish blend of cashew fruit, passion fruit, pineapple, apple, mango, and lettuce. Though it is sweeter than I expected, it isn’t the least bit syrupy. The fruits blend to the point of being indistinguishable from one another, but on the whole, it is a light and refreshing way to start.
Often I’ll avoid a restaurant’s advertised specialty and see what else the kitchen does well, but even I’d feel like an oaf going to a place called Ceviche’s and not ordering ceviche. Choosing between the five variations might have proven difficult, but the menu made life easy by offering a sampler of four (not surprisingly excluding the Langosta de Coco, a spiny lobster ceviche listed at market price).
The colorful ceviches come out in a lovely plate presentation. Four large shot glasses on a tin plate are adorned with house-made tortilla chips (the hottest I’ve ever been served) and patacones—a fried plantain slice common to many cuisines south of the Equator.
Corvina Tradicional is, as you may have guessed, the traditional style of sea bass ceviche, prepared with onions, chiles, bell peppers, and cilantro (always with the cilantro—a trend whose 15 minutes should be long over by now, in my opinion). The tart lime juice mixes nicely with the onion and pepper, which in turn provides a needed textural counterpoint to the softer fish. All in all it is a beautiful and light, tropical dish.
The Mixto combines a wide variety of seafood, including fish, shrimp, octopus, conch, and calamari. The serving size on the sampler isn’t large enough to get a good portion of each one. I admit I still find the sight of a baby octopus on the end of a fork just a little unnerving. This version mixes lemon and lime juices, which give a slightly different flavor but maintain the acidity of the Corvina Tradicional.
The Mediterraneo is an all-shrimp rendition with ingredients otherwise similar to the Corvina Tradicional. Though the menu boasts habanero, I didn’t taste any heat. The crunch of the tiny shrimp is satisfying, but otherwise the flavor is quite similar to that of the sea-bass version.
The Vegetariano, made from shredded green papaya, carrots, and red onions, has a surprising hint of spiciness. Then again, I might have cross contaminated from using hot sauce offered to me on another forkful earlier. If the chef added the spice, he’s a genius. If I added it, I suggest you do so, too. The pepper makes this one bolder and cuts some of the citric acidity.
The heavy dose of citrus is the one minor flaw in the El Cuatro. Too much of it can be a little grating. Thankfully, the patacones and the tortilla chips do a nice job of cutting it. The aforementioned hot sauce adds another dimension altogether.
Needing another beverage, I ignored the angel on my shoulder reminding me it wasn’t yet 5 o’clock and ordered white sangria. Immediately, I was struck by an overpowering bitterness. I thought it was a reaction to the change from a very sweet Fresco de Ensalada, but the tinge of bitterness persisted. After glancing at the sangria dispenser, I realized what I was tasting: hints of rind. Typically citrus fruits are sliced without rind for sangria, while other types, such as apples, can leave the peel intact. Leaving the rind in the mix imparts a tart flavor. Whomever made the batch overdid it, but a touch of rind in sangria might counter some of its natural sweetness. It’s an interesting element I look forward to trying on my own.
Bitterness aside, the sangria is a nice accompaniment to Ceviche’s food. I ordered the special of the evening, featuring seared scallops, coconut rice, grilled pineapple, and a tomatillo sauce. The gentle, salty flavor of the scallops comes through nicely, though I prefer mine to have a better sear. The hot pineapple slices give a fruity twist to the dish. Though the tomatillo sauce would be better if spicier, it still offers it requisite vibrancy. And a bottle of Ceviche’s housemade hot sauce sates any added-heat desire. My only real complaint comes in the coconut rice. More than one bite featured a hard and chewy grain. Though not enough to ruin the meal—not enough by a long shot—it warrants mention.
Most interesting: Ceviche’s prices are good. A meager $10 got me an entrée with three scallops which I estimate to be U10 (approximately 10 to a pound). I’m not convinced I can get that deal at Harris Teeter. And the grocery store surely won’t provide sides, sauces, a chef, and a dishwasher.
I should also point out that Ceviche’s is an excellent stop for vegetarians and vegans, with roughly a dozen vegan options denoted on the menu. To be fair, three of them are salsas/guacamole, but it is nice to see a new restaurant reach out to the herbivorous community.
I hope Ceviche’s finds an audience amongst those seeking respite from the cold winter months in summer-style cuisine. If it does, and it should, then that tiny building won’t hold it for long. Ceviche’s should be a year away from seeking larger quarters as long as the public supports this fantastic little upstart.
7210 Wrightsville Ave.
Monday – Saturday, 11 a.m. – 11 p.m.
Sunday, noon – 10 p.m.