Thursday, 17 January 2013

Small-Plate Trickery: Ceviche & Spuntino

If you look at the etymology of "prestigious", it refers to the end of a magician's act. The moment of prestige is where the final trickery happens, an illusion. The audience leaves amazed, satisfied by their performance.

In more recent times, the word prestigious has come to mean something that is well-respected, exclusive, top of its game.

Most would argue the new breed of small-plate restaurants in Soho are the antithesis of 'prestigious', democratising eating out and rejecting the stiff formalities of

I've been to a couple of places recently which have made me question this slightly.

The main problem with small plate restaurants is that often I don't know how full I feel or how much I'll pay until the end of the meal. 

Deep-fried olives & deep-fried aubergine
with fennel yoghurt
They're not somewhere you can casually go for a couple of dishes and get away with change for twenty quid in your pocket. Well, maybe if you literally had two dishes and nothing else. But that's not what I want to do. I don't want to go for dinner somewhere and leave hungry, and I'm not insanely extravagant but I don't like having to hold back on ordering - I see something I like, it'd be nice to say, yeah, I'll take that, and not have to do a mental calculation to see if I'll have to eat beans for the rest of the week.

If I go to a restaurant that does a set amount of courses, it's much easier to keep track of where you're up to. The starter and main course may be a bit more expensive than a 'small plate' restaurant but it is a fixed rate - you wouldn't constantly add to it, and the service is dictated to you by the wait staff, and they know much better than you what is going on.

More importantly, you don't have to play 'chef'. What goes with what? If you order the wrong combination of dishes, you could potentially end up feeling overly full and with dishes left over, or you could go the other way and end up feeling very hungry - you may think you ordered a prawn dish with say four-five prawns but what you in fact ordered was one prawn. Which conveniently, the menu doesn't state. Which means you just paid six quid for one prawn. And you didn't ask so you can't complain. Shit.

Maybe small plate restaurants should have guides to exactly how small their plates are. But of course, that wouldn't be in their best interests. It's in their best interests to recommend two or three more plates than you need and it's not their problem if you don't finish it because YOU ordered them and besides, they were just a guideline.

But despite that, I keep going to these small-plated establishments, because I get bored easily and I like trying lots of different things and I like sharing food, because it's nice to experience a flavour with someone else. Recently I have visited Spuntino and Ceviche and had a great time.

Pulled pork slider
Spuntino is so… Soho - it's New York-inspired, exposed lightbulbs and brickwork and it serves 'comfort food', possibly at a huge mark-up (which is another thing that doesn't really occur to me normally - what are you really getting for your money?), but I do like it. I visited the other day for lunch.

Figs on French toast
I arrived early and attempted conversation - 'So, are you busy on a Monday?' The hip, good-looking waiter shrugged and looked around the empty restaurant, and laughed. I didn't attempt again, for fear of other stupid things that would leave my mouth. I was offered tap water straight away, which I love in a restaurant (I HATE being made to feel small because I haven't ordered expensive mineral water). We dithered over what to order (you know what else small plate restaurants aren't great for? If your friend decides they're 'not really that hungry' and aren't hugely keen on a large part of the menu) but made a decent selection - the wonderful stuffed olives, the aubergine chips dipped in fennel yoghurt (even though they insist they're eggplant) which are canon examples of 'comfort food' last year, but I'm loath to admit that I can't get enough of them. Also the token healthy 'beetroot and creamy cheese salad' which was well, a beetroot and feta salad, really. And of course the 'it' girl of 2012, the slider. Pulled pork, no less - which was delicious but I'm not sure I understand the rule of sliders - this appeared to be some pulled pork between some bread. But what do I know, eh? And to finish, I struggled with figs on French toast - rich and sweet, but too rich and sweet for me to finish on my own (another peril of dining with the unwilling).

Whilst I was paying (for a lunch with a companion who that day, had the appetite of a sparrow, was about £50), I noticed that they were selling Spuntino t-shirts for twenty quid, just a few quid less than the retail price of Russell Norman's book, Polpo…. Bargain! But not being the target audience for that, it's perhaps unfair of me to comment on their price.

Pisco sour
By contrast, Ceviche was quite a different small-plate experience. We weren't dining at the bar, but in a mostly empty restaurant, at lunchtime. Well, it was about 2pm. Oddly, they put us in a table in the middle of the restaurant, in just the place that if I moved my elbows an inch, I'd jab the waiters and have to apologise profusely, even though we were in exceptionally close proximity.

I'd been loath to come there because I'd heard it was quite expensive but I was feeling rash. And looking at the menu, it didn't seem that bad. Wow! Everything is six pounds! Look at that thing! It's five pounds! And so on. It's easy to get lulled into a false sense of security with these things because everything seems to cost so little. But factor in a picso sour (£6-£8), a coffee, dessert, and all the other little things, and it's not so cheap. But it feels strangely liberating not to think about the bill at the end. It means that you don't have to worry that you won't feel hungry or go over your budget but it also means you could end up spending a lot of money. And it isn't an option usually, as well, I'm not made of money.

Service was, well, nothing special. They were nice, and they brought our food, but that was about it. That's really where bar dining differs - they can't really ignore you! Although, in a good restaurant, if you need something, they should know, like a good parent to a small baby. Or at least, a cursory glance every few minutes.

Coley & potato cake, mixed ceviche &
scallop ceviche
The food was much more inspiring than the empty room - which was admittedly, our fault for dining at a relatively antisocial time.

To start, pisco sours. Then, delicate sliced-up scallop ceviche, mixed ceviche containing what looked like large white pieces of sweetcorn which didn't really taste of a lot, and olives which came 'quirkily' in an old-fashioned sardine tin (but nothing to spit them in, mind). There was cooly, avocado and ginger sandwiched between a potato cake, which was drizzled with what looked like marie rose sauce, topped with a single olive. It even tasted like the 70s. I loved it. We also went for a couple of skewers - the beef heart version which were surprisingly well… beef tasting. Then I remembered that heart is also a muscle - how different could they actually taste? This dish saw the reappearance of the weird white sweetcorn, this time lightly fried… tasting like half-popped, buttery popcorn. Well played, Ceviche. Then, the 'pulpo' skewers: octopus alternated with hunks of chorizo and served on a bed of  creamed quinoa - a whole tenner for two skewers. It wasn't the tastiest octopus I've ever had but it was pleasant. 

Was it worth ten pounds? I'm not sure. I skipped dessert, none of them appealing to me - well, you can't have everything. The bill came to about £75 for two of us, for lunch. I was full, having about 5 plates. If we'd have gone for 8 plates like the waiter had recommended, I'd have been stuffed - as a rule of thumb, always order one plate less per person than the waiter recommends - you can always order more but you can't send food back. 

I really liked Ceviche. But it is very expensive, in parts. Spuntino is, too, but it's easier to fill up at Spuntino, with the carby, comforting dishes as opposed to sparse plates of raw fish - but what did you expect? I imagine Ceviche's atmosphere is buzzy when busy, but Spuntino's layout is one that you feel like one of the lucky ones, with the few seats around the bar and limited seating at the back filling up quickly. Spuntino is no bookings, Ceviche takes bookings. They're both still en vogue right now, but for different reasons. If you're not on a budget and you don't have to worry about money in a major way, go. Just bear in mind one thing: You will feel as if you have been very cleverly tricked by a sleight of hand magician into parting with slightly more money than you had intended to. Not because you can't read prices or because you've been overcharged, but because they are very good at what they do. Well, like a great magician's act, you may have been fleeced, but you'll feel like you've been fleeced stylishly.

17 Frith Street, Soho, London, W1D 4RG

Ceviche on Urbanspoon
Square Meal

61 Rupert Street, Soho, London, W1D 7PW

Spuntino on Urbanspoon Square Meal


  1. Ceviche's atmosphere is cacaphonic when busy! : ) We had a pretty mixed experience there, with the Peruvian classics being good, but their own specials (attempting twists on the classics) being rather rubbish.

    1. Yeah, I got that impression - I'd like to go back when it's busy at dinnertime, because it just wasn't the same in a hald-empty restaurant!

      Thanks for the comment.

  2. At Bocca do Lupo, the fritti, sausage and grilled seafood is priced per piece, which makes it easier to order accordingly.



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