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Ceviche, all jazzed up

Chefs are wowing diners with global riffs on the dish. Improvisation couldn't be easier.

July 06, 2005|Susan LaTempa and Barbara Hansen | Times Staff Writers

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.

Go ahead: improvise

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.

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