701 14th St. NW
Washington, DC 20005
(202) 393-3983

Do you ever find yourself in that restaurant limbo where you want to have a nice dinner but not go over the top? Where you would like to put on a pair of nice jeans or maybe a simple dress, but not have to get super done up or brace yourself for throngs of people? You know, that hard to find middle ground between, oh, say Surfside and Central.

This is a quandary I find myself in more likely than not, and it really gets frustrating when I’m hungry and trying to decide where to eat. Sometimes I don’t want a lot of fuss, but I still want a good meal that’s fun and engaging without being generic. If you’ve ever been in this position, you know how hard it can be.

Lucky for me, Ceiba seems to fit into that narrow and hard to find middle. Walking past the bar to our table, I passed glitzy and fashionable young professionals enjoying happy hour specials at a red-lit and trendy bar, sampling a variety of specialty cocktails. Once seated in one of the many dining rooms, I cozied up at a booth close to a window looking out onto Penn Quarter, another couple only arm’s length away (even though other tables were available … but we won’t go there), and I couldn’t help feeling like I was in a very nice house, or maybe at a dining room on a vacation in the Carribean. Dimly lit with lush accents, the room was cozy and inviting but still reminded me that I was in the heart of DC, without being too over the top.

The menu offers a solid selection of food, small plates on the left hand side and entrees on the right. Jay and I actually decided to come here because one of my coworkers recommended it based on the conch fritters alone. “My family is from Cuba, and these are the best conch fritters I’ve ever had.” With conviction like that, we had to try it. I was also drawn to a menu that offered interesting choices that were still reminiscent of home cooking, good yet not over-worked.

Jay and I started out with the ceviche sampler, a choice I highly recommend. Rather than limiting yourself to one ceviche (which honestly I think would be rather strong in flavor), you get a sample of all four. We worked ourself up from the lightest, an acidic and light white fish, up to the bass, which was heavy, spicy, and very flavorful, with a spectrum of spice and heaviness in between. It was very delightful, and a plus if you don’t want to overwhelm yourself with only one flavor or spice level. I honestly don’t think I could have eaten all of the bass if that was the only ceviche we ordered.

Next up, conch fritters. The last conch fritters I had were at Café Atlantico, whose version is molten in the middle with pieces of conch floating around, so this traditional version at Ceiba was a little different and hard to really guage off of the CA version. Nevertheless, they were very good, warm and thick, with a sauce that must be made with crack. I don’t remember exactly what was in the sauce, but it reminded me of queso fresco. Although I might not order the fritters again, I was glad to try them.

My entrée was the whole crispy red snapper, brought out in a ceramic dish. Although the whole fish itself was impressive, the presentation as a whole was a little sloppy, as if the kitchen was tired and bored of shelling this dish out. Even so, the fish was perfectly cooked and seasoned, just a little crispy on the outside, and the pickled jalepenoes added a great kick of heat. Jay ordered the slow braised pork, which came accompanied with black beans, collard greens, rice, and plantains, and was absolutely delicious.

One great thing about this restaurant is that the dessert menu is not forgotten, a common malady for DC restaurants. Other than Vidalia, I don’t remember the last time I had to decide between two dessert options that I wanted, rather than trying to decide which would be the best out of two generic options. I went for the warm key lime bread pudding, Jay chose the warm sugar canella dusted churros. Both of them were phenomenal, and I honestly don’t have words because I was just so happy that I finally had a good dessert.

As for the alcohol, I ordered a “specialty” pomegranate margarita that frankly wasn’t that special, but the pisco sour that I ordered after it was pretty decent. We shared a bottle of wine that was reasonably priced and pretty tasty, so that made up for the mediocre marg.

Ceiba is a good, friendly place where you can find something to suit just about every level of taste, whether you want something adventurous like whole fish or something more basic like pork or chicken. The service is also attentive and refined, although it took a few minutes for them to notice we were there, but we had a great time and never found ourselves staring at empty or finished plates for too long, and our drinks were generally refilled quickly. It’s one of those comforting places to go when you want a good meal, but not a lot of fuss.


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September 2009
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All posts and images copyright 2008 & 2009 Jenny Robertson, unless otherwise specified. All rights reserved. Any use of images without prior written consent is prohibited.
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