Latin Bites Cafe is one of my favorite restaurants in the city, but I don't get there as often as I'd like, so last week, when Chef Roberto Castre posted on his Facebook page that he had created a new cebiche menu - to be served for one week only - in honor of National Cebiche Day in Peru, I had the perfect excuse to venture back.
Armed with three bottles of wine, I arrived at 6 p.m. this past Saturday evening, the only spot they had available other than 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. Having just returned from New York City, I felt some deja-vu taking in the tiny narrow dining room. Despite the early hour, the dining room was at full capacity with a mix of cultured-looking casual-to-well-dressed patrons, many brandishing glasses of wine and engaged in lively conversation. No one seemed to mind how close the tables were to each other, or the fact that the air conditioning could have been stronger, or the people spilling in from the front door with no place to stand but in the middle of the restaurant.
"I feel so bad when I have to tell people we don't have any reservations available," lamented Rita Castre, one of the owners and also the hostess for the night. "We want to accommodate everyone but we do not have enough space. Even our patio is booked for the evening," she said. The Castres are looking for a larger space but haven't found the right spot as of yet.
"We couldn't add more seats even if we wanted to, because the city won't let us," Castre continued. "Roberto doesn't even have enough room to store the food - he has to buy everything fresh every day, and it's hard on him."
Thankful for scoring our much-coveted reservation, I proceeded to order all five of the special cebiches on the menu, adding a pappas a la crema (potatoes with Peruvian-flavored rocoto pepper, aji amarillo, and cilantro cream sauces), and a pollo a la parilla, or grilled chicken, for one of my dining companions who didn't like raw fish.
The first three cebiches were a big hit. The Cebiche de Mango, made of diced mango with rocoto pepper and mint-infused salmon, was served in a large martini glass with some Peruvian "choclo" corn and sweet potato on the side. Just what we needed on a hot summer day, the fresh mango was sweet, and the sauce had a good spicy kick that left the palate burning for more. My friend and I enjoyed this with a light glass of slightly sweet bubbly Moscato d'Asti.
Next came the Tiradito Nikkei, a Japanese-themed dish of sliced cucumbers, tuna sashimi and thin wonton crisps garnished with red fish roe and served atop a lemon soy sauce with oysters, mirin, and sesame oil. It looked Nobue-esque, and it tasted just as good. The crispness of the cucumber and wonton crisps counterbalanced the softer texture of the tuna; each bite was perfection. We paired this with a champagne-like light and bubbly French sparkling Fleuraison Blancs de Blancs.
At this point, the pappas a la crema came out, and I watched with delight at the look on my friends' faces when they tried it. "I can't believe that's just a potato!" my friend, a police officer who's more used to steaks than cebiche, told me. "Those sauces...I wish I could take some home for my baked potato, but I know it wouldn't taste the same." I totally agree. I don't know what they do to those potatoes, but they're smooth and delicious, creamy and wonderful. They're probably my favorite of the appetizers despite their simplicity.
The third cebiche, the Cebiche Pescadore, was also a big hit. A mixture of fish and other seafood like calamari and octopus which had been cooked to a just-right tenderness, this was a cebiche I could eat all summer. The flavors of the sea were enhanced by a citrus-y but not too tangy leche de tigre infused with three peppers. We paired this with an Italian Pinot Grigio, and just enjoyed how the flavors washed down with the wine.
Of note, their pollo a la parilla was just as good as the previous times we'd had it, the chicken moist and tender, the skin ultra crispy but dry without any fat.
By the time the last two cebiches came out -- I don't know if it was because we'd overimbibed or overeaten -- I was too full to enjoy them.
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Nonetheless, the meal was as successful as any I'd had in the past, and we left the restaurant on a food and wine high. "We would never have come here if you hadn't taken us," my friend told me as we were leaving, "but we're so glad you did. I still can't believe how good those potatoes were!" I was hoping to making an impression with the cebiche, but oh well. The potatoes were darn good too.
Unfortunately, the week that featured the new cebiche menu ended that Saturday night. However, a call to Latin Bites revealed that the restaurant plans to do a special menu one week per month. Next up: August 2 - 6. Make your reservations now.