Tapa the World: Ceviche

click to enlarge AMIGOS: From left, Filipe Alacio, Michelle Cavalaris and Phillip Tomis - enjoy a meal at Ceviche Tapas Bar & Restaurant in Tampa - Sean Deren
Sean Deren
AMIGOS: From left, Filipe Alacio, Michelle Cavalaris and Phillip Tomis enjoy a meal at Ceviche Tapas Bar & Restaurant in Tampa

The following column is written by the fourth finalist in the contest to find the next Weekly Planet Food Editor. Tapas have come a long way from their humble beginnings as bar food. According to legend, the original tapa was a salty slice of ham served atop a glass of sherry. The saltiness was designed to encourage patrons to drink more and improve the bottom line of the establishment. At Ceviche, roles have been reversed. It's all about experiencing the food.

On any given night, this trendy upscale restaurant is packed with well-dressed diners until the wee hours. Reservations are only accepted for groups of six or more, so be sure to arrive early if your party contains fewer people. Better yet, come with a large group. You'll want the extra mouths when it comes time to share the food.

Ceviche's lighting is low and red-tinged candles crowd every table. Piped-in Spanish music ranges from toe-tapping to knee-slapping. The tables are close together (in the nonsmoking back of the restaurant, too close) and help to create an intimate, European atmosphere.

The extensive menu is broken down into sharable dishes of either tapas frias (cold) or tapas calientes (hot). Most can be ordered in either small or large portions. Unless you have a real favorite, I recommend ordering the smaller size so you can sample a greater variety of dishes with your fellow diners.

With more than 40 items, the menu can seem daunting. If you don't know where to start, ask your server for suggestions. The friendly staff is knowledgeable enough to give you the real answers to your questions.

If you have four or more in your group, your server will probably recommend (and rightly so) the assorted platter containing a good sampler of items from the tapas frias menu ($8 per person).

Otherwise, consider ordering the tabla quesos (assorted cheeses, $6); serrano jamon (thin sliced serrano ham, $8); and aceitunas (assorted olives, $3) for an authentic epicurean tour of Spain. The Niçoise olives were particularly good, though my personal favorite was the delicious combination of aged cheeses and thinly sliced pears of the tabla quesos platter. The ensalada de patatas (potato salad, $3) with fresh herbs and imported chorizo sausage also proved an excellent choice.

The ceviche de la casa, fresh seafood marinated in cilantro and tequila, should not be missed ($6). The flavor was surprisingly delicate and light, with no bitterness from the tequila. On the heavier side, try the huevos rellenos ($3). It was very rare to find deviled eggs served at a restaurant these days, and rarer still for them to be any good. Ceviche's eggs, not your typical backyard fare, were quite creamy and tasty.

After our server warned us that the garbanzo hummus ($3) would be garlicky, I had prepared myself for a two-ton blast. I was pleasantly surprised to find it both balanced and smooth. I only wished for more toast points to enjoy it with.

Now for the really good stuff — fabada asturiana, or fava beans with chorizo ($3/$5). Everyone at the table loved it (and, yes, there was the obligatory mention of Hannibal Lecter and Chianti). More like a hearty soup than anything else — this bean and sausage dish was warm, comforting and filling. If my grandmother had made this, I would have been at her house every day.

I found the puerco salamanca (pork tenderloin, $6/$11) a bit tough but the entrecote parilla (strip sirloin, $9) more than made up for it. It was mouthwateringly juicy and tender. A lovely compound butter accompanies it, which melts in your mouth and spreads a tantalizing layer of flavors over your tongue.

Two seafood dishes also warmed my heart. The vieras rellenas (sea scallops, $8) come perfectly grilled in a leek and manchego cheese sauce that you will be sneaking spoonfuls of when your fellow tablemates aren't looking. The gambas a la parilla (grilled shrimp, $9) were their equal in flavor.

The tortilla espanola (potato and onion omelet, $3/$5) is a fussy version of a homemade classic. Ceviche's take is similar to a layered quiche and is one of the smallest servings on the menu. Consider ordering the larger size or developing your fork fencing skills.

As you can see, with all the choices on the menu (and on your plate), you have to pace yourself in order to save some room for dessert. All of the after-dinner choices were fairly light in texture and flavor, though not in calories. Tres leches, a white cake liberally drenched in three different creams, is the most original and adventurous choice ($6). The flan is denser than most traditional recipes and easily satisfied any custard cravings at the table ($4).

Ceviche is serious about keeping with its Spanish theme. The wine list is a small collection of entirely Spanish offerings. Our first choice was unavailable and the server enthusiastically recommended a pricier Rioja in its place (without mentioning the higher cost). While the 1989 Castillo Ygay was a nice, full-bodied wine, I'm not sure it was worth the $55 price tag. Those looking for the best all-around Spanish experience might opt for the authentic sangria ($4.50). It's also a good choice simply because of how it is served. The pitchers are colorful works of art handmade by a local artist who happens to be the mother of one of the servers. Every few months or so, they have pitcher-making parties and many staffers help paint and fire the pieces. The homegrown pitchers add to the overall ambiance of this unique restaurant.

The bottom line: Go to Ceviche to be seen, but stay for the food. As the napkins say, Salud, dinero, amor y tiempo para disfrutarlos (Health, money, love and the time to enjoy them).

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