Dominic Stevenson tries out Peruvian cuisine at Ceviche

Image credit: Paul Winch-Furness

The Government in Lima is currently focusing on seeing how they can build a railway from Brazil, across the Andes and to the Peruvian coast to export goods to China, but maybe they should be focusing on the exporting of their culinary secrets to a grateful London crowd – writes After Nyne’s Dominic Stevenson.

Ceviche Old Street is a Peruvian restaurant has made its home in the historic Alexandra Trust Dining Rooms. This beautiful space has many of the original features but as you’d expect, since the days where The Alexandra Incorporated Trust was established for the purpose of providing meals at a cheap rate for poor men and women, the clientele has changed somewhat. This former working class enclave in the heart of the east end still serves working class food, but now it’s based on ideas and cuisines that would have been as dreamlike as a slice of cake from the moon over 100 years ago.

The restaurant is already busy when I stroll in at 6.55pm, the tables are practically full and the bar is a melting pot full of people who look like they’re having a great time. I give my dining partner for the evening a wave, and we’re shown over towards our table.

We were sat underneath one of the tremendous pieces of Peruvian modern art that adorn the walls. It was almost florescent, brash, and startlingly beautifully contrasted against the plain wall behind it and matched the bustling atmosphere that bounced all around us.

The tables were intimate and the menu size a bit too big to sit comfortably alongside our beer and water glasses, plates and cutlery, but small worries. Our neighbours were snuggled up to us and the Spanish language sang from most of the tables in our vicinity.

It’s always a good sign to hear and see people who may have experience of a cuisine in its native land enjoying it on the other side of the world. It’s the kind of endorsement that any restaurant worth its salt craves, and it acts as a comfort blanket to people who are entering into an experience for the first time that they’re in safe hands.

We ordered Tequeños de Ají de Gallina and Torreja de Sesos from the nibbles menu to start, alongside a pair of Peruvian lagers. Now, I’ve never eaten lambs brain so I didn’t know what to expect. Everyone occasionally orders that ‘thing’ (brain, testicles, heart and so on) that we’d not normally eat, and we munch through it, each party trying not to show the fact that they’re tolerating not enjoying – but in this instance I have to declare that, much to my astonishment, I genuinely enjoyed this perfectly formed little dish. It was light, had a superb crisp and creamy texture, and the jam had a real kick. The wonton fritters with creamy chicken took a backburner with regards to the nibbles, a position not deserved as they were superb, but if you go into a nibble fight with a lambs brain then you’re never going to come out on top.

Lamb's Brain Fritters. Image credit: Paul Winch-Furness.
Lamb’s Brain Fritters. Image credit: Paul Winch-Furness.

As we enjoyed our beers, the atmosphere just washed over us. A frantic array of voices in a sea of unknown friends were chasing the flavours and memories of home, of adventure, and the conversation was vibrant and excitable.

One of the reasons that I think they’ve managed to cultivate such an atmosphere is they’ve got a system so radical that seemingly half of London’s restaurants can’t do. They take reservations.

I’m sure many will yawn at me for saying that, but it makes a lovely change to be able to walk in, be greeted and seated and not be forced into excess drinks in a cramped bar aimed at the sole purpose of discouraging a social atmosphere.

Can you imagine, restaurant goers who come in feeling refreshed and excited for their meal without feeling the effects of wind burn from a needless queue? A restaurant that values their customers enough to let them in the building.

Then to top it all, they’ve got the absolutely cheek to serve food on plates.

For our mains we ordered Lamb Cutlet Tacu Tacu and Fiestita de Bavette: amarillo chilli lamb cutlet, tacu tacu with rice and butterbeans, peanut and Andean mint sauce and bavette steak, fried Burford Brown egg, rocoto chimichurri, plantain tacacho, cannellini beans with cured pork, respectively. We also ordered one of the superfood salads – think sprouts, pomegranate, and a whole world of deliciousness – to accompany.

I was particularly impressed with the steak, and the especially the beans and pork that came with the dish. The peanut and mint sauce that came with the lamb was a real treat, the kind of flourish that makes a restaurant.

Our desert was an order of pumpkin doughnuts with chancaca honey, cinnamon ice cream, and a quinoa crunch with dark chocolate mousse and Cedulce de leche ice cream. As by now we’d come to expect, both dishes were fresh and dripping with twists. The quinoa crunch with the chocolate mousse was a real delight, and the cinnamon ice cream perfectly rounded off the doughnuts. Be warned, the doughnuts are for two…you’ll not conquer them alone unless you start at dessert first.

My overall impression of Ceviche is that it’s a place for a date, for friends, and for good times, all things which are to be hugely valued in a world of gimmicks and cool. My only hope, and my one prayer to the Peruvian food gods, is that they don’t aggressively and relentless expand until there is one in nearly every borough. It happened with burgers, it happened with Mexican, I just hope it doesn’t happen with Peruvian. Keep it simple, exciting and small and you’ll grow naturally.

The old Alexandra Incorporated Trust used to offer a three-course dinner for fourpence-halfpenny. It consisted of soup, a choice of a large steak-pudding, roast pork, roast or boiled beef, roast or boiled mutton, Irish stew, boiled pickled pork, stewed steak, or liver and bacon, as well as two vegetables and bread, and a choice between pastry, or a mug of tea, coffee, or cocoa. Taking inflation into account I really do think Ceviche, given the freshness and invention of its dishes, provides decent value even when compared to the early twentieth century dining hall.

Ceviche Old St
2 Baldwin St
London EC1V 9NU