Published On: Sat, Nov 25th, 2023

Ceibo restaurant review: South American revelry in Adams Morgan

Ceibo restaurant review: South American revelry in Adams Morgan
Ceibo restaurant review: South American revelry in Adams Morgan


En route to making the popular stew called carbonada in his native, meat-loving Uruguay, Juan Olivera would pack beef along with vegetables and cheese into a hollowed-out squash. In Washington, where the chef recently opened Ceibo in Adams Morgan with his brother, Manuel, he omits the traditional protein.

For one thing, he wants vegetarians to feel welcome. For another, the enlightened version of the dish frees the siblings from expectations. Ceibo’s menu offers a hat tip to South America but doesn’t swear allegiance to it.

The results can be … well, let me tell you about that squash. The frequent special gets roasted and relieved of its interior, some of which is pureed with coconut milk. Then, seemingly a farm stand of vegetables (peppers, onions, baby corn, sweet potatoes) and dried fruits (apricots, raisins) simmers to softness before filling the crater in the squash, along with the creamy orange sauce. Little shards of fainá, or chickpea pancake, give the dish its bite, as in crunch.

What tastes destined to become a signature at Ceiba arrives with its top set off to the side so recipients can inhale the stew before tackling it with a spoon. The dish, at once savory and (gently) sweet, proves so compelling, a debate emerges about who gets the leftovers — that is, when someone hasn’t polished off the walls of the squash. Juan uses koginut, a cross between kabocha and butternut squash that’s prized for its smooth texture, natural sweetness and edible peel.

Ceibo, which takes its name from Uruguay’s crimson national flower, doesn’t even try to compete with the season’s glitzy restaurant debuts. Spread across two small floors, the newcomer is dressed with little more than reclaimed tables and chairs and some plants. The bar stools, arranged in a precise angle, are about as fancy as the design gets. Both the lighting and music are soft, though, creating a background as soothing as the food. Manuel, who watches over the front of the house, as he last did at El Secreto de Rosita on U Street, says the spare look is intentional.

“Lots of restaurants go all out on design,” he says. “We wanted people to focus on the service and the food.” It helps that his colleagues, in and out of the kitchen, have worked with him and his brother before. Open just a month, Ceibo feels like it’s been around awhile, in the best sense. Everyone seems to know their role, be it greeting, serving or feeding. Anyway, count me a diner who cares more about what’s on the plate than the wall, floor or ceiling.

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Ceibo is a neighborhood draw that deploys a few fine-dining tricks, like sending out a gift from the kitchen once you’re seated. The bite changes, but it might include a little square of potato terrine fragrant with truffles. A selection of snacks, averaging $7, offers a nice segue. “Pork cheese” translates to cubes of a terrine fashioned from parts of a boiled pig’s head, gelatin, and tangy peppers and onions. Diners eat the snack with the chef’s rustic, housemade bread with the texture of a biscuit, which is also an escort for the silky butter bean spread, shot through with lemon and garlic and sprinkled with paprika.

The dozen other dishes aren’t arranged in categories. Instead, they go from light to less so. The buñuelos — fritters filled with Swiss chard and mild tetilla cheese — let you experience the owners’ childhood memories of their mom’s cooking in their hometown of Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital. The golden rounds come with lemon creme fraiche for dunking and are breaded in rice flour, hence gluten-free. Similarly, the crust on the Milanese rellena is nubby with rice-based panko. The entree is a carnivore’s dream: A beef medallion gets pounded thin and layered with Virginia ham and cheese, an indulgence balanced with a hillock of sprightly greens.

Uruguay has more cattle than people. No surprise, you can get a steak here. Juan gives you a taste of Uruguay’s asado, or barbecue tradition, with a strip loin grilled over charcoal, ratcheted up with chimichurri and rounded out with mushrooms and rosemary-spiked potatoes.

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If some of the dishes ring familiar, it could be because Uruguay saw “lots of immigration after the first and second world wars,” particularly from Spain, Italy, France and Portugal, says Manuel. Thin slices of boiled veal tongue show up with split baby carrots, pickled pearl onions, a sprinkle of capers and stripes of a delicate sauce that engage the cerebrum. That’s tuna in the puree. The elegant arrangement is the chef’s version of the Piedmontese classic vitello tonnato. (Juan last cooked for the Italian-focused Lahlou Restaurant Group in Washington.)

The chorizo dumplings, though, are an original, an idea Juan says was inspired by the ricotta dumplings at Estela in New York and a dish of sausage and wine served with mashed potatoes from his grandmother. The hybrid of two happy memories finds four little pillows stuffed with paprika-seasoned pork sausage and cabbage in a shallow pool of clear broth: dashi tinged with pancetta.

What the menu calls “rice pudding” is a silly description of a serious dish, a cone of rice arranged with shrimp on top and draped with an emulsion of shrimp, wine, garlic and paprika at the table. The base, which eats like an herby paella, is delicious enough to stand on its own.

If there’s a selection you can skip here, it’s raw oysters lounging in black garlic mignonette. There’s nothing wrong with the flavor of the iced White Stone oysters from Virginia, shimmering with caviar from Uruguay, but they’re tethered to their shells, so it’s a fight to detach them even with the tiny cocktail forks (or teeth and tongue).

The look of the place is so austere, I admit I was a touch disappointed at first glance. The Olivera brothers opted to pour their energy into the taste of the food and the groove of the service. They made the right decision. After just my maiden meal, I knew the neighborhood had a hit on its hands.

2106 18th St. NW. 202-478-2187. No website. Open for inside dining 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday and 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Prices: snacks and appetizers $6 to $28, main courses $22 to $36. Sound check: 74 decibels/Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: Neither the stairs leading to the entrance or the restrooms can accommodate wheelchair users.


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