- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 5, 2003

What’s a ceiba? It’s a silk-cotton tree that grows in South America and the Caribbean islands. What it has to do with Jeff Tunks’ new restaurant in the Colorado Building at 14th and G streets NW is that executive chef Tunks and chef de cuisine Christopher Clime flew off to South America and returned with lots of good ideas, culinary and decorative. The result is Ceiba.

Ceiba is to Latin America what TenPenh (Mr. Tunks’ Pennsylvania Avenue restaurant) is to Asia — that is, an inspiration rather than an authentic re-creation. Some of Mr. Tunks’ offerings are inspired indeed.

The restaurant is big (it can seat up to 180), well-conceived, comfortable and exceedingly attractive. The open kitchen faces the entrance, opposite a waiting area and a small dining area. The dining space is divided into several areas or rooms and a bar. Diners don’t feel lost.

Enormous white bird of paradise plants (which seem uncannily real, even to the touch, but they’re not) lend an air of grace to the large windows. Tables are well-spaced; comfortable chairs and banquettes are covered in colorful flower prints. Multicolored napkin rings, large paintings of tropical birds and lovely old prints of turn-of-the-20th-century Havana enliven the decor.

Mr. Tunks doesn’t repeat himself, and the Ceiba menu is full of pleasant surprises. Starters are outstanding. Shredded duck confit empanadas are made with puff pastry rather than the often heavy, breadlike empanada dough. Light and airy, the little “pillows” are filled with shredded pork, flavored ever so delicately with bits of olives and raisins. Delicious.

Crab fritters are molded into crispy round balls with a touch of spiciness, served with a mango-lime creme fraiche sauce. They’re good, too, but not to be compared to the empanadas.

Queso fundido, strips of skirt steak in an orange-colored sauce of poblano chilies and Oaxacan mild white cheese, make another unusual first course. The dish arrives at the table sizzling in a hot lava-stone pot, and the cheese mixture continues to sizzle in the pot. It’s a very tasty concoction, on the mild side. The queso fundido (literally “melted cheese”) is a substantial portion, easily shared by two.

Cuban black bean soup is not a smooth soup, but has lots of black beans in it, as well as a hefty element of pickled onions and a nice ham and manchego cheese croquette. It’s rich and an unusual version of a classic Cuban dish.

Chicharrones are composed of chunks of pork shoulder in a sweet sauce, akin to a barbecue sauce. The pork, as the pig often is, is a little on the chewy side. The sweetness of the sauce is nicely set off by a crisp and tangy slaw of radish, onions and other vegetables, named for Mr. Clime, who at one time lived in Ceiba on Puerto Rico’s east coast.

There are four ceviches — striped bass, tuna, grouper and shrimp, each prepared in an individual manner and garnished appropriately. These can be ordered separately or as a sampling of all four. Mussels steamed in beer; a salad of diced vegetables and tender grilled octopus; smoked swordfish carpaccio; conch chowder; and oysters on the half shell offer other choices for seafood lovers.

The grilled rib-eye steak is an outstanding winner among the main courses. It’s a tender, delicious and flavorful steak, served with a classic Argentine parsley chimichurri sauce.

Grilled salmon with a tomatillo salsa and cactus-flower relish is excellent as well. However, the squash-blossom quesadilla listed on the menu as a garnish was omitted on our order.

On a recent rainy evening, both the seared scallops and the sugar-cane-skewered shrimp disappointed us. Both dishes were on the tough side and tasted decidedly of iodine. The large, beautiful shrimp retained none of the sweetness of the sugar cane. Ceiba, by the way, extracts the juice from the cane with its own sugar-cane press.

Among the delicious dishes available at lunch are a Cuban sandwich and pulled chicken tostados. Delicate fried tortillas are topped with dark, juicy pulled chicken mixed with a little mole rojo (red mole sauce). The chicken is topped with some radish, onion and cilantro salad, which in turn is topped with a sprinkle of Mexican cheese. It’s a tongue-tingling sandwich.

The creative menu includes such unusual dishes as braised pork feijoada ravioli with black beans; Baja-style fish tacos with beer-battered halibut; a Brazilian braised pork shank; and rum- and tamarind-glazed tuna.

A large soft-shell crab encrusted with crushed pumpkin seeds makes a fine luncheon entree. The crab, though a bit overly seeded, is fresh and sweet. The accompanying mashed sweet plantain and a Caribbean Creole sauce of tomatoes, corn and bits of other vegetables match the crab perfectly. When soft-shell crab is not available, talapia gets the pumpkin-seed crust.

Be sure to try the flan for dessert. It’s rich, creamy and out of this world. A 70-year-old Cuban-born woman living in Miami gave her cousin, Ceiba pastry chef David Guas, her expertise and told him, “A real flan does not contain one bubble.”

If you don’t want to start the evening with a mojito or a trendy martini, try a glass of a non-vintage New Mexican sparkling wine — it’s light, crisp, dry and a bargain at $7 per glass.

Ceiba has been open for about six weeks, but Mr. Tunks and his team deserve the kudos their customers throw their way.

RESTAURANT: Ceiba, 701 14th St NW; 202/393-3983

HOURS: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner 5:30 to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday

PRICES: Starters, $6 to $11 (lunch), $6 to $15 (dinner); entrees, $11 to $16 (lunch), $17 to $26 (dinner)

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Difficult street parking; dinner valet parking $5

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

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