In a quiet, nearly empty restaurant, he sat with his crisp white chef coat contrasted by his spiked up black hair, crouched over the bar, scribbling away on a sheet of paper. He heard footsteps moving towards the bar (my own) and turned around, in a daze. He squinted at me, as if focusing his pupils in order to be able to see through them.
"Hola, Chef David," I offered. "Bienvenida, bienvenida a Alma," he welcomed me slowly, as he stood up to say hello. I stared at him blankly, asking through my gaze if everything was okay. Suddenly, his eyes got wide and he rubbed his eyes and cheeks and shook his head. "I am so sorry," he said, snapping out of his trance-like state. "I was really focused on the paperwork I was doing, and you caught me off guard. And I am a bit tired, too. My apologies. Let me show you around."
Chef David Guerrero proceeded to show me around his recently opened restaurant, Alma Cebiche + Bar -- a former Chatter's Cafe and Bistro that Chef David and his team revamped in about seven days, mainly through colorful artwork. A small drink bar (which is slated to be a pisco bar one day), exposed kitchen and petite "ceviche bar" formed one side of the restaurant, while a limestone-hued exposed brick wall made up the second of the four walls. Floor-to-ceiling windows composed the remaining two walls, with a simple yet lovely patio adjacent to the left-most wall. Black tables and chairs are accented with bright yellow vases containing vivid pink roses. A dim, warm light showers the place with the perfect lighting to create an intimate dining atmosphere.
I opted to sit in view of the patio, as I love patios yet wanted to enjoy the warm atmosphere and Latin music found inside. As soon as I sat down, a friendly server greeted me. Would I like a glass of chicha morada, he inquired, and I said yes. Lucky for me, I grew up eating a lot of Peruvian food, which was oftentimes accompanied by the quintessential Peruvian drink, chicha -- a sweet, nonalcoholic beverage made from purple corn and flavored with spices.
Despite the limited menu options --16 items, to be exact -- it was going to be very tough to choose which Peruvian dish I would be savoring that night. Would I try the scallops, or the pollo a la brasa? The chupe verde de habas - a fava bean, mint, huacatay, cilantro, basil and corn soup called my name. But I had to try the ceviche no matter what, I thought to myself. I took my time perusing the menu, all the while sipping happily on the refreshing chicha morada, which was flavorful and not overly sweet.
Chef David appeared again, this time looking more awake and refreshed. He pulled out a chair at my table and sat himself down like an old friend would, despite the fact that we had only interacted two times prior. We caught up and discussed what he had been up to: nothing more and nothing less than opening and closing the restaurant daily since its opening, perfecting the menu, training the kitchen staff, helping to make sure things were running smoothly on the restaurant floor, trying to get the word out about his new spot, running the restaurant's social media...heck, even designing the menus on the table. No wonder he was looking a little out of it when I had arrived. I asked myself if the average Houstonian knows that this is a true reflection of what it takes to be a restaurateur, and that it is not all glitz and glam.
I followed Chef David's recommendation and asked for a ceviche tasting. I watched him from afar as he created the first ceviche, Ceviche Limeño -- the most traditional out of the three on the menu. After a few minutes, out of the ceviche bar came the chef. He presented me with the dish and told me all about its ingredients -- white fish, aji limon leche de tigre (spicy citrus juices in which the fish is marinated), choclo (Peruvian corn with huge, non-sweet ears of corn), chulpi (kind of like the South American version of corn nuts), red onions, sweet potato and cilantro. With enthusiasm and a twinkle in his eye, the young chef told me about his masterpiece.
I dug in excitedly. The fish was of high quality and, importantly, quite fresh. Its leche de tigre bath was zesty and spicy, adding a beautiful zing to the dish, balanced out incredibly well by the sweet potato and choclo. I am sure I broke some kind of social norm when I lifted the plate and slurped up all of the remaining juices. It's okay; I didn't care.
Next came the ceviche de camarón, a shrimp ceviche with tomato leche de tigre, red onion, chifles, chulpi, popcorn and rocoto ketchup. Since the rocoto pepper is high on the heat level, I expected a super-hot shrimp ceviche. However, the ketchup toned it down considerably, taking it down to an extremely mild spice level. In this ceviche, dried banana rounds and popcorn added a crunch factor while further neutralizing the spiciness of the rocoto -- certainly appreciated by me, as I am not a fan of super-spicy foods. Although I really liked how the dish came together as a whole, I decided that I like my Peruvian ceviche made with fish -- call it personal preference; we all have those.
My ceviche experience concluded with the Tiradito de Pescado, ceviche made up of tiritas, or delicately sliced strips of fish, rolled up into little bite-size pieces, sopping in aji rocoto leche de tigre, with choclo and dollops of sweet potato puree topping each piece of fish. I smiled at the sweet potato presentation, a pretty one, and one that I had never seen as part of a ceviche -- usually, the accompanying sweet potato is boiled and served whole, as a half, or in round slices. It turns out that the puree didn't only look nice, it tasted wonderful. It was a welcome little creative touch. Mmm. Ceviche-licious.
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Despite the fact that we were pretty darn full, it would have been an injustice to the exceptional menu to leave without trying one more non-ceviche dish. I ended the night with a Pescado Saltado Nikkei, from the two "wok and rice" menu options, which was a bed of white rice artistically surrounded with white fish, red onion, tomatoes, green onions and fried potatoes, all mixed with a sauce that married oyster sauce, soy sauce, sesame oil and tamarind. All of this translated into an über-pleasant flavor explosion -- one that I savored with each bite, each time for a bit longer, as I knew I was closer and closer to the end of my Alma experience, a moment I was not looking forward to.
Label it cliché, but Guerrero truly is pouring his heart and alma (soul) into his new venture. Get yourself a heaping scoop of that soulful cooking.