Seviche puts more emphasis on its restaurant business
October 14, 2010 4:00 AM
Cuban sushi rolls at Seviche on Penn Avenue, Downtown.
By China Millman Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Seviche, located at the edge of Downtown's Cultural District, is a reliable spot for revelers of all kinds. The colorful, South Beach-inspired decor, loud music, lengthy list of tropical cocktails and a menu designed for sharing help draw a crowd, even on nights with few Downtown events.
It's undoubtedly a successful business, but in many ways, it has been functioning more as a bar than restaurant, albeit one with relatively creative and diverse food options -- after all, how many bars serve raw fish? Earlier this year, owner Yves Carreau and his staff made some changes that place a bit more emphasis on Seviche as a restaurant.
They replaced some of the bar tables near the front of the room with a row of tables for two. While seviche -- the dishes are spelled with an "s" rather than the more familiar "c" to stay consistent with the restaurant's name -- and Latin-inspired tapas still make up a large portion of the menu, they also added mid-plates, which are more substantial and typically more suited to individual consumption.
Hours: Monday-Thursday, 5 p.m.-midnight, Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m.-1 a.m.
Basics: The bright flavors on the plate fit in well with the bright colors and lively rhythms that draw a crowd at this Cultural District destination.
Recommended dishes: Caipirinha, curried tropical fruit seviche, chipotle-dusted crab salad, corn and goat cheese croquetas, salmon gazpacho, paella mariscos, tres leches cake.
Prices: Seviche bar, $8 for a taste, $18 for three; sushi, $10-12; tapas, $7-11; sandwiches, $9-11; mid-plates, $15-18; desserts, $8.
Drinks: 13 white wines and 15 red wines available by the glass and bottle; wine by the glass starts at $6, while bottles start at $22, with seven bottles of white and five of red for $30 or less; two dozen bottled beers, $4-7; 18 specialty cocktails, $6-10.
Summary: Wheelchair accessible; credit cards accepted; reservations now accepted on Friday and Saturday; corkage, $25.
Noise level: Loud to extremely loud.
Among these a salmon filet stayed moist beneath a bright green pool of chilled tomatillo soup ($15). A few pieces of grilled ciabatta rested against the fish, perfect for mopping up the tart puree. Juicy slices of pork tenderloin were stuffed with banana slices, which had become sweet and smooth from cooking ($15). The slices of pork came with spinach and a couple of fried plantain chips. A dark rum glaze was sugar-sweet, but it was somewhat balanced by a bright green herb puree, which lent the dish a touch of complexity. The spinach was the weakest component, as some of the delicate leaves had turned to mush while others were raw, a weirdly extreme contrast. More mature spinach leaves or a hardier green would have fared better.
My favorite from this category was the seafood paella, the small pan filled with saffron-scented rice, the bottom layer just a bit crisp ($18). The aromatic rice was studded with chunks of chewy, salty chorizo, a tasty surprise with every bite and an excellent contrast to the saline sweetness of the seafood garnish -- three plump mussels, two silky scallops and an exceptionally sweet shrimp.
These are good additions, but Seviche is still a restaurant best suited to grazing, rather than dining, because there seems to be a lack of communication between the service staff and the kitchen. When I dined with one other person and we each ordered two dishes, one as an appetizer and one as an entree, we received them one at a time, with fairly long pauses between each plate. Fortunately, we had planned on sharing, but if we hadn't, our meal would have been impossible.
Seviche offers a seven-course tasting menu for $40, which theoretically is a bargain, but on a quiet Wednesday evening there were such long delays between courses that the meal felt interminable. It took 30 minutes before the first course arrived, and at least 10 minutes passed between each subsequent course. Our server apologized several times, but the length of the pauses never decreased.
Additionally, while different staff members helped clear and occasionally served a dish, none seemed to be communicating. When a server brought the trio of seviche that made up the first three courses, she hovered over our table, uncertain as to whether this was correct. Since the tasting menu consists of surprise dishes -- some from the menu and some created by the kitchen -- we had no way of telling her whether she was at the right table. She had to bring the dish back to the kitchen to consult, then several minutes later returned with the food. Each time a plate was cleared, we were asked whether more food was coming.
That trio of seviche -- seafood marinated in a mix of lime juice, jalapenos, red onion, cilantro and a variety of other seasonings -- was the best part of the tasting menu. Mild hamachi was paired with a bold tropical fruit seviche, sweet and tangy with a lively hint of spice. Crunchy plantain chips were a flavorful, crunchy vehicle for the soft, flavorful mixture. Salmon was paired with a corn and avocado seviche, another flavorful combination, although the starchy corn was a reminder that Seviche isn't as seasonally oriented as it could be.
Tuna in the traditional marinade of lime juice, jalapeno, scallions, red onion and cilantro almost tasted a little dull compared with the other two variations. Overall, the seviche was even tastier because I didn't have to pour over the list of seven raw and six partly cooked seafoods and seven preparation styles to devise my own combinations.
Unfortunately, dishes created by the kitchen that evening were consistently inferior to the items on the menu. A few slices of medium-rare filet mignon were topped with a squirt of wasabi aioli and paired with a salad of pickled ginger, grilled fennel and micro cilantro, all doused in soy sauce. The filet's mild flavor was indiscernible beneath the jarring saltiness of the soy sauce and sharp sourness of the ginger.
Slightly better were grilled shrimp, their sweetness accentuated by a light char. They were served with the same bright herb puree as the pork and a tasty guajillo pepper sauce. The dish also was supposed to include coconut rice, but it had been mixed with a lime-intense pico de gallo that totally overwhelmed any coconut flavor. Although the flavors were pleasing, this dish wasn't surprising or interesting enough to make the tasting menu worthwhile.
The regular menu had a few unfortunate dishes as well. The Peruvian poke consisted of large ceramic soup spoons filled with chunks of tuna sitting in a bath of ponzu, a soy sauce flavored with yuzu juice but still way too salty to be employed with such abandon (the menu mentioned orange ponzu broth, but the orange was indistinguishable) ($10). I was intrigued by the Latin Crudo seviche, which incorporated cilantro pesto and a butternut squash and jicama slaw. I thought it would be a good complement to the grilled squid. Unfortunately, while the slaw was crunchy and flavorful, the squid was chewy and rubbery with an unpleasant fishy taste ($8).
The server didn't bother to ask why we'd barely touched the squid, another sign of the disconnect between the front of house and the kitchen.
The best way to experience Seviche is to sit with a couple of friends, order a number of plates to share and enjoy them whenever they arrive, while sipping a classic mojito or caipirinha ($8), two drinks which Seviche makes very well.
Corn and goat cheese croquetas, served with a mouth-watering gaujillo pepper-peanut sauce, were delightfully crunchy with a warm, creamy center ($8). Chipotle-dusted crab salad was like a cross between a Southwestern and a Cobb salad, made elegant by its crown of sweet lump crab meat tinged with the sweet, smoky heat of chipotle peppers. The crunchy mix of romaine, grilled corn, black beans and roasted red peppers was enriched by bacon, creamy avocado and salty sheep's milk Manchego; dressed in a light lime-cilantro vinaigrette and topped with a few thin malanga chips -- more substantial and sweeter than a potato chip, these may be my new favorite croutons ($11).
While not all of the mid-plates are ideal for sharing, some, like the paella, are a great addition to a selection of tapas, and even pork or fish easily can be portioned onto tasting plates.
There are only a couple of dessert options, both of which were tasty, but simple. A sweet tres leches cake that is a little more cake-like than most was served with a thin strawberry sauce and a few sliced strawberries; a trio of fruit sorbets came with glazed sopaipilla, small rounds of crunchy fried pastry ($8).
If you're looking for more variety, head across the street to Mr. Carreau's second restaurant, Sonoma Grille, where pastry chef Kelly James' seasonal menu always has something new to surprise and delight. The ice cream sandwich trio recently included pumpkin ice cream sandwiched with snickerdoodles, wonderfully rich coffee ice cream with lemon cookies and chocolate ice cream with gingersnaps -- a fantastic finish to the evening ($8).
In a few months, Mr. Carreau's Downtown holdings will grow by one to include NOLA in Market Square, which will be inspired by the foods of New Orleans. Given his impact on the thriving Cultural District, it is an impressive vote of confidence for the future of the square.