Last night, Mark and I celebrated an early Valentine's Day dinner at Ceiba, a contemporary Latin American restaurant at 14th and G Street. Ceiba is part of the Passion Foods group of restaurants, which includes TenPenh, DC Coast, Acadiana, and PassionFish (in Reston Town Center). I've been wanting to try one of these restaurants for sometime, as they have a great reputation around town, and Valentine's Day dinner was as good an excuse as any. Did Ceiba live up to the hype? Sort of. The food was very good, but in my opinion, the decor and service left a little to be desired. Taking everything into consideration, dining at Ceiba was a nice enough experience that I'd be more than willing to give the other Passion Foods restaurants a try.
Click below to see what we ate!
Now, the first impression made by the restaurant was not the greatest. We arrived about 5 minutes before our 5 pm reservation, and the hostess informed us that they would not be seating for another 15 minutes. This confused me a little, since I wondered why they would have allowed me to make a 5 pm reservation if they didn't start seating until 5:10, but I wasn't too put off. She then waved us over to the bar/lounge area to wait. We headed over, where Mark and I took advantage of the $5 Happy Hour cocktails. I liked my Caipirinha, while Mark was a little so-so on his Pisco Sour. We looked around the restaurant at this point, and I noted that the decor was sort of haphazard for my tastes, as it looked like they had taken a bunch of different elements they thought evoked a Latin American feeling and threw them together. Mark agreed, and likened it to a tacky hotel foyer.
After about 10 minutes, we looked over and noticed that people were being seated, so we made our way back over to the hostess stand. Not knowing quite what to do, I hesitantly asked if we were supposed to come back up to get seated, and she matter-of-factly and kind of condescendingly replied that she would have come to fetch us at the bar. Okay, then. She seated us immediately, anyway.
Once seated, our very efficient and knowledgeable (if a little abrupt) server* took our drink orders and brought out one of our very favorite parts of the meal: the pumpkin seed dipping sauce, which was accompanied by crispy (baked?) tortillas. I loved this unique substitution for the typical complimentary bread and butter! The dipping sauce was incredibly and surprisingly complex - the nutty, subtle sweetness from the pumpkin seeds was melded deliciously with chickpeas, tomato and garlic, and there was a nice spicy bite underlying all these other flavors.
Pumpkin seed dipping sauce with crisp warm tortillas
Unfortunately, the dip we actually ordered did not fare as well. The guacamole was really mediocre and bland (especially in comparison to the great tableside-made guac we recently had at Rosa Mexicano). Mark theorized that it had been prepared significantly ahead of time, as it tasted a little refrigerated and mushy.
Guacamole de Molcajete
I felt similarly apathetic towards my appetizer, the Yucatan shrimp ceviche "cocktail," with pico de gallo, avocado, and corn tortillas. I guess I was expecting a more traditional ceviche (seafood cooked/marinated in citrus juice), with cleaner, brighter flavors; this was a lot soupier and tomato-ey (I know that's not a word) than I was hoping. The dish's saving graces were that it was decently spicy (heat-wise) and the shrimp were juicy. I really wish I had gone with the more traditional Peruvian ceviche...
Yucatan shrimp ceviche "cocktail"
Not to worry, though. The kitchen redeemed itself with Mark's appetizer, the shredded duck flautas, with fresh masa, black beans, corn, chili de Arbol, and salsa verde. Both Mark and I raved about this dish, and it was Mark's favorite of the meal. While I often find shredded duck can be a little stringy and tough, it was ideal here - the tender and flavorful shredded meat was paired to great effect with the black beans and corn. The flautas were perfectly fried - crisp and flaky without any hint of greasiness.
Shredded duck flautas
While they didn't quite match the expectations raised by the flautas, the entrees were solidly good. Mark got the Feijoada, slow-braised pork shank with black beans, collard greens, and rice. He would have preferred the meat to be more seasoned, although he said what it lacked in flavor, it made up for with tenderness. Having had (quite a few) bites of his dish, I would agree, but add that I don't know that I've had pork quite that tender in a restaurant for some time. The accompanying black beans, collard greens and rice were competent, but nothing about them blew either of us out of the water.
I got the Moqueca Bahiana, a Brazilian seafood stew with rock lobster, prawns, calamari, and mussels. The dish was filling, flavorful and satisfying, and the seafood was plentiful and cooked to perfection, which tends to be rare in D.C. The tomato broth was rich and spicy; I found myself almost wanting bread to sop up the leftover liquid.
I left the dessert ordering to Mark, who promptly asked our server for her recommendations. Based on her say-so, Mark got the warm sugar Canella dusted churros, with a side of dark hot fudge and almond marshmallows, and the white chocolate blondie sundae. While I'm not typically a dessert person, I thought both the server's picks were remarkable, although Mark didn't quite share my enthusiasm. The churros were light-as-air and satisfyingly crispy. The chocolate sauce was a little too rich for my blood, so I ate the churros bare, but Mark thought the sauce and marshmallows were nice.
Warm sugar Canella dusted churros
While I really liked the churros, the white chocolate blondie sundae, with dulche de leche ice cream and fresh banana was in a completely different league. Even though I was stuffed, I could not stop eating this dish! The heat from the lusciously warm blondie melted the fantastic dulche de leche ice cream into a creamy, velvety sweet sauce.
White chocolate blondie sundae
So, although Ceiba and I started out on the wrong foot (and I know, it's not fair to start a relationship on Valentine's Day), things had straightened themselves out for the most part by the end of the meal. I would come back again, if just to try some of the other dishes on Ceiba's extensive menu.
*I tend to like my servers pretty friendly and chatty (although not to the point of intrusiveness), because it makes me feel more at ease and more comfortable asking questions about the meal. In fact, I will laugh off significant mistakes in my order, lack of knowledge about preparation or ingredients, or even a long wait for the check, if the server has taken a little time at the beginning of the meal to establish some sort of rapport with me. I know a lot of people prefer less chit-chat from the wait staff; Mark is actually one of these people. He thought the service here was good, and I don't necessarily disagree: she was efficient, attentive, and knowledgeable. I just wouldn't have minded a smile or two.