It's almost as if someone turned St. Pete's Central Avenue up a notch. A few months ago, Bella Brava opened, with its modern Italian cuisine and modern steel and wood design, to the near-unanimous acclaim of food and décor pundits (me included) and locals. And now Ceviche, that SoHo tapas staple famed for late-night service, has opened a stunning outpost in the bottom of the old Ponce de Leon Hotel.
It's not a dramatic place — more like subdued. Deep red and pale cream stain the plaster walls, with a few panels of sky blue and stained wood for accent. Decorative black wrought iron is everywhere, from the large gates leading onto the patio to the trim lining the bottom of the square tables. (That trim makes it hard for us stocky folk to fit our thighs under the tables, but it looks great.) There are three levels: a bar at the top, which overlooks a dining area a few steps below, and then a veranda — mostly enclosed — just outside.
When plates of ensalada de patatas ($3) and alcachofas rellenas ($7.50) hit the colorful mosaic-tiled tabletops, they fit right in. Maybe I don't feel like I've walked into a taberna in the Ciutat Vella in Barcelona, but the look of Ceviche makes the style of food seem inevitable. The potato salad is pungent with herbs and garlic, with a smoky note from tiny cubes of chorizo that add their spicy character to many of the tapas at Ceviche. The alcachofas (artichokes) feature the rich, caramelized sherry cream sauce that is another mainstay of this food and perfect with the tender vegetal hearts and stuffing of ham and shrimp.
You can — and should — choose the classics that define tapas. Ceviche's ceviche ($7.50) is surprisingly sweet, but a bright blast of tart citrus powers through to punch up the plump shrimp and fresh fish. Papas fritas ($3.50) are perfect with a couple glasses of Ceviche's excellent sangria ($5), each bite of crisp fried potato and garlic mayo punctuating the sweet fruit juice and ruby red wine.
A tabla mixta ($9) loaded with assorted cheeses, ham, fruit, and meaty country pate will make you wish for a different style of work and life. At 5 p.m., we should all take a break from our lives and settle down at Ceviche for a few plates of food, then home for a siesta. If we do, I can assure you the Bay area's nightlife will start to get much more exciting.
Like its SoHo counterpart, the St. Pete Ceviche's kitchen is extremely tiny, so they continue the pleasant tradition of displaying all of the cold tapas along a bar in the dining room. Every time a server drops behind the lit display to fill an order of sweet grilled calamari salad ($5) or creamy garlic-flavored devilled eggs ($3.50), eyes in the dining room linger over the display, perhaps fearing that they have missed something especially delicious. More than once I've seen people saunter over to gaze at the goods and return to their table to order more food.
Servers at Ceviche are like the food — casual and varied. From comfortable and chatty to sarcastic and catty, they all share a knowledge of the food and an efficiency that belies their relaxed attitude. They fit the place.
As plate after plate after plate come to the table full and go away empty, it's easy to start worrying about waistlines and credit card balances, but Ceviche is one of those rare tapas restaurants where there is actual value in a parade of tiny bits of food. Albondigas — meatballs made with smoky ground chorizo and tender veal — covered in a spicy tomato sauce are a hearty treat for only $6. Luscious fried chicken covered in herbs and mustard seed sails in at under $7, although the creamy sherry sauce underneath the nuggets may make waistline concerns realistic.
More than 15 of the 50 or so plates on the menu are $5 or less, which makes Ceviche a bargain if you restrain yourself. If not, you can experience tender seared scallops ($9) seasoned with a punch of black pepper perched atop sauteed leeks mixed with manchego cheese; or sliced filet mignon ($10) doused in decadent cream and brandy, so tender the meat melts in your mouth.
The beautiful setting and sheer volume of different dishes make Ceviche a great place for a date — no matter what your companion likes or dislikes, there is bound to be something on the menu to eat. Sure, there's a lot of garlic, but both of you will be tainted, so that's all right.
Afterward, you can experience a hidden gem of St. Pete's Ceviche. Down a flight of wooden stairs — or through a small street entrance — is an amazing bonus. Low ceilings, wooden pillars and a lot of earthy red paint highlight Ceviche's Downstairs, a bar and performance space that may be the coolest hangout in downtown St. Pete. With cigarette smoke wafting through the air, swirled by the spontaneous expressions of dancers in time with the raucous music of live Flamenco guitar, this space has captured the experience of being in a true Spanish club. They even serve a limited menu of food down there.
Owner Gordon Davis has done an amazing job in transforming a site that has hosted several failed businesses over the past decade. He already had the food down, thanks to a successful run with the same menu at the Tampa location, and it translates easily to the new restaurant. I can't get over the setting, though. I've seen more striking restaurants, but none in recent years that exudes more class or maintains such admirable consistency with the existing architecture. It looks just about perfect.
Davis has mentioned expanding the Ceviche concept into Sarasota and Naples. For the sake of our southern neighbors, I hope he does.
Brian Ries is a former restaurant general manager with an advanced diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers. He can be reached at [email protected]. Planet food critics dine anonymously, and the paper pays for the meals. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.