Peruvian food, particularly ceviche, has become the favourite cuisine of London. Appearing in one form or another on most middle and top end menus, it seems there’s no end in sight for its popularity. New Peruvian restaurants continue to open, with more and more heading here are opening establishments at the top end of the market, where the Michelin starred Lima holds sway – its chef patron is Virgilio Martinez, of Central in Lima, which was voted the best restaurant in Latin America in 2015. But the Peruvian restaurants that rule the roost are the more casual places to head to for a pisco sour and sharing plates of ceviche and grilled meat. Of these it is Ceviche and Senor Ceviche that vie for top spot. The argument over which is best divides friends and family, like Cavaliers and Roundheads, or Mac versus PC.
So which is best? Is it Ceviche or Senor Ceviche?
To start with, both have something of that shack vibe, with plenty of the colour that one associates with South America – though admittedly more with Brazil and Mexico than Peru. They also share a similar offering: snacks, ceviche and grilled plates; oh, and of course plenty of pisco-based cocktails that are as unique as they are colourful. That said, Ceviche has a far larger menu as well as a list of favourites.
In the end, though, none of this is important; what matters is which serves the best food, and here there is a difference. The obvious place to start is with ceviche itself, the dish that has been at the vanguard of the Peruvian colonisation. Ceviche’s offering is more in keeping with how Londoners have come to understand the dish. It comprises thin slices of tiger milk cured fish that is beautifully firm and fresh, and dressed with the crops of South America, rather than just the red onion, chilli and coriander have become the norm. The scallop ceviche (Nuestro Secreto) is a stunning pink, thanks to hibiscus tiger milk doing the curing, and is topped with chia seed gel, while the tuna ceviche (Tuna Manu) with avocado uses tamarillo tiger milk. Both superb dishes.
Senor Ceviche takes a different tack and serves its ceviche in a bowl with an aji sauce – a spicy concoction that often contains tomatoes, coriander, chilli, onions and water, with each of their three varieties using a different aji chilli. It is quite a different style, with the ingredients piled high and swimming in the liquid.
In fact it is tiradito – a Peruvian dish of raw fish served in a spicy liquid – with the fish replaced by ceviche, something you don’t expect given the description of each dish (the reference to it is in the menu section title alone). For me the problem with this way of doing things is that the dominant flavour is lime with chilli heat; you can’t taste the ceviche and its accompanying flavours. We should be in the realm of subtlety – a subtlety that is lacking at Senor Ceviche but shines through at Ceviche.
How do things compare from the grill? Well, for starters both offer grilled beef hearts but alas no guinea pig, despite cuy being an Andean delicacy. Clearly Londoners are now more open to a return to the offal that we used to eat prior to the 1950s – helped no doubt by the idea of it being a foreign cultural import – but what we perceive as furry pets are still a step too far.
The grill at Ceviche again has a wider selection, offering grilled fish dishes as well as meat. The skewers of marinated beef heart with corn and rocoto sauce are tender and succulent, while the octopus and chorizo skewers are a classic flavour combination, executed without fault; the chorizo is caramelised and the octopus is soft on the outside with that slight bite in the middle. Ceviche also offers some classic Peruvian dishes. Unfortunately both my Pachamanca Chicken and Tamalito de Cameron (king prawns) were overcooked, the chicken being particularly dry – a great shame given the quality and perfection of the cooking from the grill, and the ceviche.
The Pollo a la Brasa – herb marinated and grilled half baby chicken with coriander yoghurt – at Senor Ceviche, with a side of sweet potato fries and aji rocoto mayo, is a dish I would go back and order any time. Just the right side of dry, the charred outside mingles nicely with the marinade, while the yoghurt cuts though nicely. The sweet potato fries are perfection on their own.
Sweet potato and chillies are the dominant ingredients used at Senor Ceviche. While, of course, they are staples of Peruvian cuisine, when you are ordering a number of dishes to share, and they all to some extent have the same flavour profile, it is a little dull and repetitive. This is a particular problem for Senor Ceviche given the menu is so small. In comparison, there is something different about almost every dish at Ceviche and its menu is three to four times the size.
Hands down Ceviche is the better of the two. Apart from having a wider selection, its food is more creative and interesting and to me feels cooked with more love and attention. Ceviche is generally the same price as Senor Ceviche, but it does have a few dishes that are more expensive by a pound or two. Your overall spend may also be higher though at Ceviche as the wide array of choices makes it hard to pick just a few things, so chances are you’ll over order.
Ceviche Soho 17 Frith Street London W1D 4RG Ceviche Old Street 2 Baldwin Street London EC1V 9NU http://www.cevicheuk.com/ Senor Ceviche Kingly Court London W1B 5PW http://senor-ceviche.com/