Tropical treat: Seviche is like a warm breeze from the South Beach

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Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette
Curiel Bame, executive chef of Seviche, holds up one of his favorite dishes, Fire and Ice -- traditional seviche that gets its fire from habanero peppers and red onion and its ice from a scoop of prickly pear granita.
Click photo for larger image.
Seviche


930 Penn Ave.
Cultural District
412-697-3120
www.seviche.com

Hours: Dinner Mondays-Saturdays 5 p.m.-1 a.m.
Basics: A buzzing bar serving tapas of raw fish and cooked meats in a colorful and energetic environment. From mojitos to anejo rum and from plantain chips and salsa to filet mignon, this emporium of unusual food and drink brings a new beat to Downtown dining.
Prices: All plates, $7-$12; desserts, $8; wines, $6-$16 for 51/2-ounce pour.
Summary: The Latin beat of Miami's South Beach brings Havana to Pittsburgh with a tapas bar serving lots of small-plate menu items made with authentic Latin ingredients. A fun ambience with salsa music and tropical decor. The welcome is warm and the service is casual.

Stepping inside the door of Seviche, the new restaurant on Penn Avenue in the Cultural District, is like a visit to Miami's trendy South Beach.

The lofty space with walls bathed in warm shades of green, pink and orange evokes the colors of lime, guava and papaya. The music is straight from Havana, and the rustic oil paintings clustered on one wall represent such iconic images as vintage American cars with fins and Spanish colonial architecture.

A long bar on one side of the room is stocked with no less than 55 rums hailing from sugar-cane-producing countries south of our border. The open kitchen on the opposite wall buzzes with activity as a bevy of chefs whirl like dervishes around the grill and chopping block in their tiny space. The six stools that belly up to this corner spot are the most sought-after real estate in the room. A close-up view of chefs Curiel Bame and James Rogers at work is as much fun as some of the stage attractions in the neighborhood.

The tapas prepared there are by definition small portions, and Seviche's menu consists entirely of such plates. Diners can design their own "tasting menu" by ordering an assortment of dishes, with each order approximately two to three bites. As someone who would always prefer three appetizers to one entree, I am happy to see this style of eating becoming more and more popular in Pittsburgh. It is also refreshing to see fresh, raw fish escape the sushi cliche that has become a part of every Asian restaurant in our city. This light and citrusy fish treatment is a perfect way to dine on seafood.

Seviche is the creation of Yves Carreau, owner of Sonoma Grille, which is just across the street. Chef Carreau, a Frenchman transplanted to Pittsburgh, has turned Penn Avenue between Ninth and 10th streets into a happening dining destination. To accommodate the post-theater diners in the Cultural District, both Sonoma Grille, a wine bistro serving West Coast cuisine, and Seviche have kitchens that remain open for late-night meals. Managing partner Albert Torchia has returned to Pittsburgh after eight years in Miami to oversee Seviche.

You won't find a menu like this anywhere else in Pittsburgh. The food is simple, well-prepared and attractively presented. The focus is on the ingredients, which are not only fresh but also in many cases exotic. To educate patrons, Seviche has designed a brochure, placed on each table, with descriptions of the more unusual items. For example: "Malanga, like taro and cassava, is used in tropical countries in the same way that potatoes are used in more temperate climates. It is known for its sweet and nutty taste." Indeed, the chips of fried malanga slices are sweet and unusual.

The restaurant is named for a classic South American dish that reportedly originated in Peru some 5,000 years ago. Although it has been modified over the centuries and across the South American continent, the basic recipe remains the same. Seviche is raw fish that has been marinated in citrus juice until the acid has essentially cooked the fish. Every Latin country has given the dish a local interpretation: Mexico adds chunks of ripe avocado while the Colombians like it with chopped tomato and corn kernels. All of them season the fish with raw onion, jalapeno pepper, cilantro and, of course, lime juice.

In addition to the traditional version, our Pittsburgh seviche has been given some new interpretations. Pina Colada Seviche has added coconut milk and fresh pineapple to the mix and is served with fried plantains. Another version adds Thai green curry, grilled tomatillo and fresh mango to the fish. This is served with malanga chips. The most original seviche creation is Fire and Ice, in which the heat scale has been notched up by the addition of habanero peppers. These bring the fire, and the ice is a scoop of homemade granita flavored with prickly pear, the fruit of a cactus eaten in Mexico and the Southwestern United States. Each of these dishes is $8.

Other fish options are more Asian than Latin. Asian Tartare, a sushi-like presentation of raw fish served on bed of sushi rice wrapped in seaweed, is topped with Tobiko caviar, the roe of flying fish. Ginger Tataki is slightly seared fish served with Asian ponzu sauce and pickled ginger. These dishes can be combined with other fish presentations with three plates costing $18. One of the more appealing aspects of this menu is that the diner selects which seafood will be used in any dish from a list of eight shellfish and four fish.

In addition to seafood plates, beef, pork and vegetables are on the menu. Filet Mignon a la Plancha ($12) is a 3-ounce piece of grilled tenderloin sitting on a spoonful of sauteed wild mushrooms and topped with a red wine reduction. Tender and flavorful, this entree has nothing really exotic, but it is a comforting choice for the less adventurous.

More interesting is Mojo Criollo Pork Shank ($8), a 4-ounce shoulder shank that is slowly braised until it falls from the bone and is served with a crunchy slaw of jicama and butternut squash. Pork Empanada ($7) is a South American meat pie that here is stuffed with pulled pork and Mexican queso fresco, encased in bread dough and fried. This is a tasty tidbit but a bit skimpy in size, even for a tapa.

Boniato and Bacalao Croquettas ($6) are four tiny balls of sweet potato and salt cod served with cilantro and chile mayonnaise. I found the croquettas bland and somewhat pasty. Even the pep of the chile mayonnaise could not redeem them. Saffron Fish Soup ($7) sounds appealing, but on both of my visits, it was unavailable.

Little sandwiches come with a delicious hash made of plantains and malanga. What a great new taste discovery this combination of a tropical fruit and root vegetable is! Try one of the sandwiches and ask for a generous portion of hash. The sandwich choices are pulled pork ($9), filet ($10), wild mushroom and goat cheese ($10), blackened hamachi ($9) and ahi tuna burger ($11).

To make the tapas plates a real meal, there is Grilled Knife and Fork Caesar ($8). The menu describes this as a quarter wedge of grilled romaine with white anchovy crostini and lime Caesar dressing spiked with a Peruvian herb called Huacatay. My problem with the salad is that the "quarter wedge of romaine" was actually only three leaves, and although the dressing was interesting, there was only a drizzle across the lettuce and not enough to flavor all the leaves. The idea of grilling the romaine is an original one, but I could not see where it added anything to the taste.

On the other hand, Grilled Serrano-Wrapped Asparagus ($10) was a memorable highlight of my dinner at Seviche. Three fat asparagus spears wrapped in paper-thin slices of Serrano ham are grilled until the ham forms a crisp casing on the crunchy asparagus. The spears are arranged on a pile of frisee salad with slivers of chayote, a pretty green squash that adds texture and eye appeal to the garnish.

Chef Bame makes all the desserts ($8 each) served at Seviche. In spite of the cramped kitchen space, he manages to produce four desserts each day. This week he is making Cutty Cakes, a sort of ice cream sandwich made with chile-spiked chocolate wafers that enclose a house-made banana rum ice cream, and traditional key lime pie. There are always pineapple and banana fritters and Tres Leches Cake, which is served with fresh strawberries and whipped cream, a Latino version of Strawberry Shortcake.

Seviche's bar has designed some original drinks to accompany your tapas. I especially like the sounds of Macho Gazpacho ($8), a mix of Absolut Peppar and housemade gazpacho. The bar offers 15 Latino beers for $5 each and rums from $7 to $75 a shot, including extra-aged, reserves and overproofs (151 proof). There are 30 wines available by the glass or bottle priced from $24 to $59. This is as much a bar that serves food as it is a restaurant.


Elizabeth Downer can be reached at edowner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1454.


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