Ceviche is not the kind of food you wake up craving at first light. It most certainly isn’t what lulls you blissfully to sleep. It is a summer dish, for hot days, when one is in need of something fresh and bright to keep their insides cool while their bodies bake. I do not like having to pucker when I eat – I know some, like my brother, do – so perhaps I am predisposed against the Peruvian gastronomic phenomena.
But then again, I’m not exactly sure I completely dislike it. Ceviche, a Latin American dish most popularly identified to have originated from Peru, represents a seafood dish that expresses affiliations with steamed fish and sashimi that are just peculiar enough to be enticing yet possesses an evocative tenderness that is comfortable and smooth in its transition down your gullet. But if your fish is served half-submerged in the acerbic marinade, as it is at places like Senor Ceviche, then you may mistakenly take in too much of the acid with a spoonful of fish, and find your tongue being cured in your mouth like the protein you are trying to consume. If without the marinade on the plate, or served chopped in a pot of what looks like pico-de-gaio then it becomes an agreeable hors d’oeuvre.
As a main dish? Hmm…not for me. While I can fathom why people like the dish, there is not enough depth for me to consider it more than just an object of curiosity. Fish cooked with citric acid? That’s interesting, let’s try it, shall we? I’d propose in addition that another reason why ceviche has become so popular is simply because of its name, ceviche, seh-vee-chay, a word that feels better on your mouth than the actual thing. Once you start saying it you cannot stop, and after a while, in the throes of adopted rhythm, you may even start to dance to its resonance. Ceviche…ceviche? Ceviche, ceviche, ceviche!
It was a dish I’d always been interested to try, but not quite enough for me make a special trip for it. There are so many other more titillating gastronomic flirtations that are significantly more appealing. But looking around Kingly Court, with so many plausible choices for lunch, we decided to try a cuisine that was new to both of us and hoped for the best. Also, they had a decent number of vegetarian options that recommended the place unto Maddy’s sensibilities.
Senor Ceviche reminded me of a Mexican cantina, a deliberate hodgepodge of posters, smeared and grazed stools, patterned tiles, picture-frame festooned walls, blinded windows, Latin music in the background and the Spanish tinged accent of the waiter who received us. The restaurant was full when we arrived, so we had to wait some time before we were allocated a seat. It took a while for them to even acknowledge the line at the door, not all of the Senor staff were even that busy, so it was more the case of keeping their head down (out of sight, out of mind) until they had no choice.
We were eventually directed to a table that was rather inconveniently placed. Every so often we’d have to fold ourselves over our table to let people pass, or fiddle with our bags to make sure people did not step on them. It was a table by the back, between the central seating area and the walkway before the tables against the rear wall. Plus, the few hanging bulbs hanging beside us were only just bright enough to let us make out that the complimentary pebbles on the table were actually roasted corn kernels. Also horrible for photography.
Though our first impressions of Senor were admittedly not the most favourable, we were pleased with the speed of the service, and the overall vibe of the place. People did seem to be enjoying themselves, though I did raise an eyebrow at the fact that none of the tables around us had ceviche on them.
An unquestionably scrumptious plate of quinoa croquets was the highlight of our meal at Senor. Crisp in a falafel-esque bulgur kind of way, mealy, and wearing the yellow cape of a cheese emulsion, on a sweet rocoto sauce, the flavour of which is on the spectrum of roasted tomato and red pepper. I wished I could have taken some home in a jar. The boring burnt cauliflower dish with aji limo and piquillo pepper salsa that came after, gained some interest only after dunking pieces of the vegetable into the dregs of the previous dish.
Maddy’s Jerusalem artichoke, a ceviche of samphire and fennel with the traditional aji amarillo tiger’s milk citrus marinade, was an utter disappointment. The artichoke was still raw and hard, so everything else just became meaningless garnish that was not worth being picked at.
My sea bass and octopus ceviche was good for what it was. I suppose I had come in expecting more than what they could reasonably give, and thus was not too satisfied after consuming my cured fish and octopus. However, there was one element that I particularly relished: the slices of avocado, whose soft oily texture fused well with the sharpness of the compellingly named tiger’s milk.
Not wanting to end our time at Senor with resigned discontent, I ordered the dish of grilled beef heart for myself, and some sweet potato fries for Maddy, to give the establishment a chance at redemption. Slices of rare beef heart, topped with the interesting addition of aji panca, a fruity Peruvian pepper, botija olives and mint, was lovely when I scraped most of the tapenade off the top. Just the slivers of sweet potato mayonnaise with the slices of meat would have been perfect, but the olive and pepper mixture was too piquant by far. Reassessing ratios, the combination is worthy of note, and would have been decent if better executed. The sweet potato fries were a tad flaccid for my liking, but Maddy seemed happy enough.
With some points on the board, we decided to share the dulce de leche ice-cream for dessert. I nodded happily at the pouring of sweet caramel coloured sauce over a generous globe of vanilla tinged dulce ice-cream that was of a smooth beige hue. The menu said pecans but we were given walnuts, nuts of distinguishable flavour and texture, but we could not be bothered to point it out. The dessert on the whole was cool and reassuring, and probably prevented the acid from repeating on me as the day went on.
Though Senor Ceviche is not particularly expensive at all, leaving the restaurant having spent over fifty pounds and not feeling overly satisfied with the meal is not a good feeling. Especially since we could have just settled for some foolproof ramen, pizza or even a burger and chips. Oh well, at least we tried. I shook off the funk, as one in this business soon gets accustomed to, keeping in mind that perhaps ceviche somewhere else would be better done. Needless to say, I was not going to be rushing anywhere Peruvian anytime soon.
Location: Kingly St, Soho, London W1B 5PW
Prices: Para Picar £5.50-£8.00; Ceviche and Tiradito £7.00-£9.50 ; Peruvian BBQ £8.50-£14.00; Sides and Salads £4.00-£6.00