When the ceviche appetizer comes to the table, it’s as beautiful as a peek into a tide pool brimming with sea life. A bright clamshell opens next to a curling purple octopus tendril; there’s a flash of pink shrimp tail and a pretty bed of green and red vegetables.
The interplay of colors and forms in Nobu Malibu’s ceviche hints at the amazing nuances of flavor to come: sweet seafood enlivened with bright citrus flavors and set off by summery tomatoes and an undercurrent of chile and ginger.
Once found only in Latin American restaurants -- Mexican and Peruvian mostly -- ceviche has become a favorite of chefs at many of the most innovative restaurants in town, and it’s gaining almost a cult following among diners. The familiar appetizer of raw fish “cooked” in lime juice and tossed with vegetables and chiles has gone creative and global in L.A. these days, blithely crossing boundaries and showing up in all sorts of new guises in all sorts of places -- steakhouses, neighborhood California cuisineries, formal French restaurants and Japanese restaurants too.
Chefs just seem to love creating new ceviches -- they’re found on many tasting menus -- improvising new combinations of flavors with each new season or seafood delivery. Spontaneity is the point: making something wonderful with whatever’s freshest and best at the moment -- and that means an ever-changing palette of seafood, citrus and vegetables.
Ravel Centeno-Rodriguez, co-owner of Minibar in Studio City, loves ceviches so much he’s dreamed of opening a “cevicheria.”
Minibar offers ceviches with different ethnic twists -- Ecuadorean, Hawaiian, Thai -- on the regular menu, changing every few months. Chef Thomas Deville also dreams up a continuous line of ceviches du jour. One recent example, the Hawaiian ceviche, is made with ahi tuna, pineapple, soy sauce, shaved fennel and “gyoza chips.” Another with a Mediterranean twist cooks rock shrimp and albacore in a crunchy marinade of lime and orange juice, fresh tomatoes, diced red bell pepper, ginger and honey. Coming soon, as part of Minibar’s expansion: a raw bar with a big ceviche section.
Other restaurateurs might be a bit less ceviche-mad than Centeno-Rodriguez, but not by much. It’s no surprise to find it on the menu at Latin-focused places such as Norman’s in West Hollywood, Paladar in Hollywood or Border Grill in Santa Monica. But it’s also showing up at restaurants as different as the French-Mediterranean Lucques, the Japanese Nobu Malibu, the steakhouse Boa, and Meson G, where small plates rule.
The spirit of improvisation has always animated ceviche makers (the dish probably originated with fishermen who couldn’t cook on their boats and so “cooked” their catch with lime juice and added tomatoes, cilantro or whatever was at hand), so the current anything-goes mood among chefs is a natural stage in the dish’s evolution.
It’s also a product of distinctly L.A. conditions: the availability of great, incredibly fresh fish; a customer base that’s wild for flavor but shies away from carbs and calories; and a local love affair with raw fish -- be it sushi, sashimi, ceviche or crudo.
“Ceviche tastes good, it’s refreshing, you feel good after you eat it,” says Suzanne Goin of Lucques. “It’s brightly flavored. In L.A. we eat a lot of sushi and sashimi. For me, ceviche connects with that too. That’s the nice thing about being a chef now in Southern California. I’m definitely not a fusion person, but you’re not so boxed in.”
Goin’s ceviche was inspired by a farmer’s “amazing” tangelos and Reed avocados to create an appetizer of pink-fleshed nairagi (the Hawaiian fish also known as striped marlin, or a’u) quick-marinated in lime and lemon juice, and served with avocado, tangelo, jalapeno and pistachios. Goin then worked with her Hawaiian fish supplier, who brought her different fish to sample, and she tasted various options until she settled on the nairagi. “It all came from a tangelo-avocado-pistachio place. The tangelos and their juice are bracing and taste really good cold; the avocados are buttery; and the fish is something that’s good very cold with a lot of lime and sea salt.”
At tiny Chloe in Playa del Rey, co-chefs de cuisine Abigail Wolfe and Ian Torres worked together to create their ceviche, a salad of albacore marinated in lime and tangerine juices, then mixed with a confetti of diced cilantro, cucumber, radish and corn and served mounded on greens.
“Albacore’s a really cool fish,” says Wolfe. “It’s really pale, and then when you toss it with the citrus, parts of it turn white. You don’t want it to ‘cook’ evenly. It’s beautiful when you can see the opaque and translucent parts.”
Torres, she says, had the idea to incorporate the vegetables so that it would be equally vegetables and fish, with lots of colors and textures. Thrilled with the arrival of early summer corn and cucumber, Wolfe and Torres tossed those vegetables into their surprising ceviche.
When chefs mix it up with ceviche, they ring changes in one or all of the three elements of the dish: seafood, citrus and vegetables.
The seafood can be all of one kind or a mixture. Mild-flavored white fish are often used, but these days, chefs might taste half a dozen fish -- such as sea bass, halibut, hamachi -- before selecting the right one for a particular ceviche. Shrimp, rock shrimp, scallops, squid, octopus have all shown up in a citrus bath on someone’s appetizer list. When fresh calamari came to town, Ciudad featured a minted calamari ceviche. Lee Heftner at Spago often has a ceviche on tasting menus there, frequently using hamachi.
At Boa Steakhouse and Lounge on the Sunset Strip, ceviche livens up the seafood platter appetizer, an amusing and impressive edifice of king crab legs, lobster and shellfish on ice. Served with warm, chewy sourdough rolls, the tangy ceviche of shrimp, fish, scallops or conch, depending on the season, complements the sweet cold crustaceans.
Even Umenohana, the Beverly Hills bastion of handcrafted tofu, offers an appetizer ceviche: a single shrimp and a single scallop marinated in lime juice, served in a chilled martini glass on a slice of lime and topped with a tiny scoop of apple-tomato sorbet. The sorbet’s designed to soften the acidity and enhance the sweetness, a departure from traditional chile-spiced ceviches.
“You have to have some kind of acid,” says Minibar’s Centeno-Rodriguez, “citrus or vinegar. The fish has to cure.”
While South American ceviches often use vinegar, just about every kind of citrus juice seems to have made its way into L.A. ceviches lately: tangerine, orange, lemon, lime, tangelo. Fish “cooks” differently in different citrus; chefs often combine less acidic juices such as orange with traditional lime.
Nobu Malibu’s ceviche is made with various combinations of white fish, shellfish, octopus, squid and shrimp in a sauce of yuzu and lemon juice, soy, ginger, garlic, black pepper and spicy aji amarillo chile paste.
Ceviche lovers look for a little something on the side too. At Cafe del Rey, the halibut ceviche, made with Buddha Hand citron juice and toasted coriander seeds, is served with Thai basil granita. Peruvian ceviches are served with potatoes and corn, but most of us, accustomed to Mexican ceviches, look for a chip equivalent.
“You always have to have a little bit of crunch,” says Centeno-Rodriguez, “whether it’s from the ceviche itself or what accompanies it. I always like ceviche with some kind of dipping tool -- gyoza chips, arepas, plantain chips, tostones [plantain fritters], jicama chips, yucca chips. That’s part of the fun. It’s a little party in a bowl.”
Roots in Latin America
Ceviche was a specialty of Mexican beach resorts back in the day, and for decades it was most closely connected with Acapulco.
Longtime Mexico travelers remember that on boat tours taken from coastal resorts, the destination was often an isolated tropical beach where the boat crew would prepare ceviche for the visitors. Recipes for slightly more complicated ceviches using pompano, haddock, oysters, shrimp and snapper appear in cookbooks published in Mexico from the 1950s onward.
Ceviche is also a traditional dish in Ecuador and Peru, where it’s most often made with whole shrimp marinated in lemon juice then stirred into a salsa of finely diced tomato, onion and cilantro. Other fish and shellfish are also used, and many recipes call for the inclusion of chopped chiles, celery, garlic and other ingredients.
Ceviche’s roots make it a favorite among Latino kitchen staffers around town. It’s a popular staff dinner at Water Grill, where Chloe’s Wolfe, who is from Vermont, had her first taste of it while working at the downtown restaurant. It’s also often a staff meal at Cobra & Matadors, though it’s not currently on the menu there.
Caribbean, Asian flavors
Some dishes billed as ceviches veer off into tuna tartare or semi-sashimi territory. At Noe downtown, chef Robert Gadsby’s tuna ceviche with Bermuda onions and wasabi is soft slices of seemingly seared tuna -- no chill, no crunch, no chiles. The ceviche on the menu at Ortolan veers a bit too: white salmon is marinated briefly in lime, then served with caviar and lime-and-lemongrass milkshake shots.
But many of the best ceviches we’ve tasted lately owe their exciting flavors to Caribbean and Asian ingredients. Conch, coconut, lemon grass, Asian chiles, ginger, Thai basil and other ingredients from citrus- and seafood-loving cuisines work beautifully.
The trick is to keep it simple. No matter how inspired the experiment, ceviche has to stay honest to its humble roots to be ceviche. Improvise away -- but keep the mood casual.
Just slice up the freshest fish you can lay your hands on, squeeze the juiciest limes or lemons you’ve got, toss in the tastiest combination of chiles, raw vegetables, herbs and other salad-y things that strike your fancy. Marinate, mix, chill -- and call it cooking.