Matthew Rainey's first order of business as the corporate chef for Caledon Concepts was to reinvent the bay area's three Ceviche restaurants — new menu, new plates and cutlery, new presentations. A fresh look. The chef, who was hired on as the executive chef of Rococo Steak in St. Petersburg last year, has an ambition and competence that quickly propelled him to become the corporate chef for Caledon, the parent company that also owns Ceviche. He rolled out his new vision in the Tampa Ceviche location at the beginning of September, with the Orlando and St. Petersburg locations to follow.
It's a smart instinct. The Ceviche group hasn't changed much over the past decade, its menu a vast, nearly blowsy array of tapas and more substantive dishes like paella. Rainey, with a curator's precision, trimmed the lineup from 83 items to 52, excising poor sellers and keeping an eye on seasonality.
After a couple of visits, I can say that many of the edits and dish tuneups make a lot of sense. There are losses (one tear for the disappearance of the potato chips with the blue cheese), and a handful of things that should be rethought (the house bread, an anemic weakling from Sysco, is not complemented by a bowl of herbed olive oil that tasted off), but the overall effect is more contemporary and stylish.
But there's also this: It's less coherently Spanish. With a long-standing reputation for Spanish small plates, the message is a bit muddier with this briefer menu. Hummus ($6) and baba ghanouj ($7)? Surely there are more resoundingly Spanish spins on chickpeas and eggplant (though the Spanish paprika in the hummus is a nice touch). And two of the four ceviches are now more Ecuadorian/Peruvian style. But they are tasty and elegantly presented, the shrimp version ($11) with a balanced coconut-citrus flavor and just a bit of serrano sizzle, the plush, limey tuna version ($13) accessorized with classic nuggets of fried Cuzco corn.
A more "world beat" approach is the modus operandi for so many restaurants right now, and on a Tuesday night when hot and cold tapas are discounted and sangria is $5, Ceviche's fans seemed gung-ho about the changes.
I applaud the livelier tomato sauce on the chorizo-pork-veal albondigas ($9), as well as the new sherry cream sauce that is the bed for the stuffed piquillo peppers ($9, but the filling read like a paste, much too finely ground to be texturally appealing). The plate of haricots verts with garlic, lemon and a sprinkling of toasted marcona almonds ($7) is a welcome addition, and the grilled octopus from Spain or Portugal ($11) brings an arresting plate with discs of saffron potato and pickled red onion. Sadly, the octopus itself was egregiously overcooked and the texture of jerky. Fried calamari ($10), always a big seller, has been taken in a more fritura mixta direction with the addition of fried shrimp and shishito peppers (these are everywhere these days, every 10th pepper a fiery little sinus clearer), but its flurry of Parmesan seems unnecessary and a little confusing.
Service, which has always been a mixed bag at the various Ceviche locations, continues in that vein: One evening our server adopted a fairly laissez-faire approach, another night a manager hovered, the words "mesdames et messieurs" oddly appended to every sentence. That said, the wine list and cocktail program are looking spiffy under director of operations Dave Madera and newish Caledon president Lee Karlins. And Rainey's new direction, menu-editing and more rigorous presentations position the small regional chain to stay competitive in a market that is increasingly awash in small-plate concepts.
Contact Laura Reiley at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.