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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Thing 14: Ceiba

Moving further South from po' boys, shrimp and grits, I arrived at Ceiba for a taste of South America.

“The mussels are really good,” the host said to me as he handed me the menu. “So is the tilapia. Oh, and the empanadas!” I thanked him for his recommendation and he left me with the menu. I expected his enthusiastic recommendations to steer me towards the most expensive items. I must be too cynical – his recommendations fell about the middle of the menu, price wise, and I decided he must really just love the empanadas.

I looked around the room as I waited for my lunch date. We had ended up at a small table for two in a corner of the main dining area, with big windows that look out on G Street, downtown. Fake banana tree leaves are fanned out across the windows, allowing light through but obscuring people’s ability to look in on diners. The ceiling has a dome carved out of it, and is painted sky blue. A modern, flat chandelier of thick unlit candles rests beneath it: stars waiting to be lit. The tables are of dark varnished wood with woven place mats, the chairs are upholstered in white. Easy listening salsa music plays quietly. The dining room is bright, comfortable, and tropical without the kitsch.

My lunch date, a client and friend, mover and shaker, arrived and we ordered a couple of mojitos. They arrived full of fresh mint, sweet and sour with lime and sugar, and adorned with a stick of sugar cane and an inexplicable tiny plastic bull hanging from the side of the glass.

We asked our waiter for further menu recommendations. He pointed out the steak and the mussels and the sugarcane ahi tuna. I tried to talk my friend into grilled octopus salad or the ceviche shrimp cocktail, but he wasn’t too enthusiastic. In the end we ordered the empanadas and a pork- and goat cheese-stuffed pepper. My friend ordered the steak, and I ordered the mussels. Normally I wouldn’t have been inclined to order mussels at a Latin restaurant, but when two of the staff recommend something that isn’t the most expensive thing on the menu, I figure it's worth a try.

The appetizers arrived, and the empanadas were the clear winner. Lightly deep fried, rich and golden and crispy, they were stuffed with beef, hard boiled egg, raisins and green olives, and came with a spicy red dipping sauce. Four mini empanadas were lined up on a small, white rectangular plate and I reluctantly let me friend eat two of them. The pork stuffed pepper was fine, just not nearly as memorable as those empanadas.

My mussels arrived in an earthenware bowl, piled high and surrounded by a yellow broth, thick with coconut milk. These were jumbo mussels! I’ve never had mussels this big. The meat inside each shell was the length of my thumb and twice the width. Also, I've only had mussels prepared like the Belgians like them – in a thin broth of white wine, butter, parsley and shallots. It is a wonderful broth for dipping frites or French bread into, but these mussels bathed in a very different sort of soup. It was a thick broth, tasting of curry and saffron, made rich with coconut milk and fortified with rice and strips of bell pepper. The staff is right: order the mussels.

We were stuffed from the feast, but ever the sweet tooth I ordered a light dessert for us to share, a trio of sorbets:

The one on the left is prickly pear – spicy and peppery and altogether unpleasant. The middle, a banana-mango topped with a small circle of buttery caramel, was my friend’s favorite and he got to work on that one. The clear winner for me was the scoop on the right, a guava sorbet with a salty edge. The sweet guava is enhanced by the saltiness, the same pleasurable combination as a margarita or a chocolate-covered pretzel.

Another two hour “power lunch” complete, and another of DC’s signature restaurants to check off the list. Ceiba was conceived of and executed by the same team as TenPehn and DC Coast, which I am now looking forward to tremendously.