It’s my fourth day in Orlando and I’m starting to understand that there’s more to dining here than theme park hot dogs and chicken fried steak. So far I’ve had excellent new Italian food and mind-blowing Latin-Asian fusion. Now I’m about to have another culinary revelation: Tapas at Ceviche (125 West Church Street, Orlando; 321-281-8140; Ceviche.com/Locations/CevicheOrlando) that’s like a little bit of Barcelona flown into downtown’s happening Church Street Station.
My first impression upon entering is of a cavernous space, rooms leading on to other rooms, each one with a higher ceiling than the next. Easily accommodating dozens of tables, the place buzzes with energy.
But then I notice the details, like the honey-colored wood cladding the walls and floor, and the hand painted tiles inlaid in both, and realize the restaurant feels romantically Mediterranean and somehow intimate despite its size. This might just be the rare place suitable for both a proposal and the engagement party.
The group I’m with is more in the mood for a party than romance, so we start with copious amounts of sangria, which a server mixes and muddles right at our table, glugging whole bottles of wine into an over-sized, fruit-filled ceramic pitcher.
Properly lubricated, we’re ready to begin feasting. We each have a strategy decision to make right off: Should we order one large plate each, paella, perhaps, or a more adventurous selection of small plates? Maybe it’s the wine, but we all find it easy to settle on tasting our way through the tapas, sampling and sharing an unholy amount of food over the course of the evening.
Ceviche is literally the name of the game here, so we order servings of ceviche de la casa to share. There are several varieties to choose from, and I’m personally tempted by ceviche a la Rusa, which comes with a shot of vodka, but I already feel I’m pushing my luck with the urn of sangria in front of me. The house recipe doesn’t disappoint, with just enough rich chunks of fish to be satisfying, just enough onion and lime to wake the mouth up, and just enough jalapeno to keep things interesting.
Then it’s on to cold plates, which range from simple Spanish bar classics like a cheese plate and toast smeared with tomato and garlic, to more complex fare like tiradito de solomillo,a beef tartare served with a sherry reduction. A charcuterie plate including chorizo and Serrano ham is a standout.
Warm morsels follow, again including classics, like albondingas (meatballs) and papas fritas, but also including next-generation tastes like panko-encrusted pork tenderloin and braised oxtail. Welcome surprises include creamy, crunchy croquetasof deep fried ham and béchamel; and piquillos rellenos, mild peppers stuffed with meat and cream sauce.
Though we hardly need anything else to eat, we’re easily persuaded to cram in one more food group: dessert. The tres leches cake is a rare disappointment—the cake is a little plain and dry, and a meringue outer layer seems Frankensteined in from some other dessert. Much better is the torta Valenciana, a moist chocolate tart infused with orange and drizzled with raspberry sauce.
By the time we’re ready to leave, Friday night is well under way. The place is filling up and starting to feel like a party. Outside, we discover that it really is a party: We’ve arrived during Orlando’s annual Gay Pride celebration, and rainbow revelers are throwing a dance party in the middle of Church Street.
This is a one-off event, and a little bit of an anomaly in Church Street Station, which isn’t known as a gay neighborhood. But it is a place with a lot of drinking and dining options, so this party isn’t actually a huge jump up from the area’s normal Friday night energy levels.
And Ceviche’s ambitious gourmet offerings aren’t really a huge step above many fine restaurants in Orlando, a city with a lot more going on than most theme-park seekers give it credit for. But on a wine splashed evening for a first-time visitor to the City Beautiful, it’s all a pleasant surprise.
THE DIRTY DISH
Ceviche, 125 West Church Street, Orlando; 321-281-8140; Ceviche.com/Locations/CevicheOrlando.
TYPE OF RESTAURANT: Upscale tapas
(0 – 5 worse to best)
AMBIANCE: Between the warm, dim lighting, sensuous food, and flamenco three nights a week, it’s impossible to describe the place without using the word “romantic.”
SCENE: Couples, for sure, but plenty of lively big groups, too. Live music and free-flowing sangria keep the atmosphere boisterous but not rowdy.
SERVICE: Self-conscious about your high school Spanish? Don’t worry; the servers will get you through the menu with your dignity intact.
NOISE LEVEL: Did we mention cavernous? And the tin ceiling? It definitely gets loud.
RECOMMENDED DISHES: Ceviche, naturally. Several versions are offered on any given night.
CHECK, PLEASE: $ = $30-$50, depending on how many plates you order. (price of average dinner/lunch/breakfast/brunch bill for an individual dinner)
THE EAT: Big plates, small plates…it’s easy to eat exactly as much as you need at Ceviche. (Actually, it’s easy to eat a lot more than that, too.)
WORTH THE NIGHT OUT? Yes, especially considering the small-plate aspect—you can make a quick, relatively inexpensive visit if you want, or linger and make the evening a pricier and more caloric splurge.
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