THE CITRIC CURE

A POP-UP THAT DESERVES TO STAY

Los Angeles’ pop-up restaurant scene has exploded throughout the city, showing no signs of disappearing any time soon.  Entrepreneurs and chefs alike are creating short-term businesses for restaurants, clubs, bars and boutiques. these models usually have calculated closing dates, while others start with no clear end in sight popping up in new spaces at any given time. For chefs, the simplest explanation for such a trend seems to be that it is the most pragmatic and premeditated way to build hype around them before taking the risk in signing a ten-year lease for a costly restaurant space. Moreover, these risk adverse environments really allow the chefs to concentrate and experiment on the most important thing… the food.

It appears that diners still love surprises, menus and venues alike. Pop-ups, are a  great draw for those who are constantly on the look out for  the best “new thing”. as the demand for such ventures is on the rise, the supply of creative and talented chefs has never been so abundant.  Mix this all together with a hole in the wall venue or a neighborhood wine bar and well, you are in for a treat. Octavio Olivas, founder and chef of the Ceviche Project is an example of one of these chefs who has gotten the combination just right.

I first met Octavio on a beautiful Saturday afternoon near the beach in Ventura; we had both decided (separately) to spend the day with friends shucking and slurping oysters a mere three park tables apart. At some point during the day, I noticed Octavio fill some mason jars that held nicely shucked Kumamoto oysters that were laden on ice with applewood smoke.

I found myself wandering over to his table as if in a trance and Octavio, ever the gentlemen, offered me an applewood-smoked oyster. It was delicious….

As Octavio and I began to converse in depth about our love for oysters, I learned that he was experimenting with new techniques and dishes for his upcoming pop-up at Vinoteca in Los Feliz. Realizing that we lived just a few miles from each other, I made plans to meet up with him to learn a little more about his Ceviche Project.

It was only fitting that I met up with Octavio-the young, superbly dressed Mexican born lawyer at Water Grill- and chatted over yet another meal of oysters, followed by scallops and of course, ceviche. I had a lot of questions: I wanted to know why he was concentrating on ceviche, how he felt his compared to the other prized Cevicheria’s in Los Angeles and what his future intentions for the Ceviche Project were?  I quickly realized that the Ceviche Project was much more than just a traditional way to prepare seafood for Octavio, it is a state of mind, a musical rhythm; it is a way of life.  Octavio’s childhood experiences of preparing ceviche  with his family stand out as some of his favorite memories. now, older and living in Los Angeles, Octavio is passing on a apart of his cultural heritage by actively sharing his passion for preparing ceviche for his family, friends and community- ceviche that is prepared with only the highest quality of sustainable ingredients, in an environment with memorable beverages, traditional music and endless conversations.

Experiencing Octavio’s Ceviche Project gave me new a appreciation for the pop-up restaurant. his ceviche is by far the freshest, most visually appealing, technically astute and delicious ceviche in Los Angeles. I’d fallen in love with ceviche all over again, unfortunately, being a pop-up means that I can only relive the experience once a month.

THE CULTURAL PRESERVER

Octavio, born in Mexico City spent most of his upbringing in the small city of San Luis Potosi. Octavio’s father, who was a professional sports fisherman, exposed him to the beauties of the sea and fresh seafood at a very young age. This tradition, of passing on one’s love and knowledge of the sea and it’s gifts is an act that has taken place for hundreds of years and that was arguably started by the Ancient Inca’s. Octavio recounts memories of  fishing trips that went on for weeks in his families VW Westfalia along the Caribbean and Pacific coasts. his father would often transform the catch of the day into a simple, yet beautiful dish of ceviche. It was during this time that  Octavio developed a keen eye, sophisticated palate and an understanding of the different varieties of fish and ingredients that worked best for a plethora of ceviche dishes . It was through these early childhood experiences, that Octavio developed a true love and passion for ceviche.

After studying law in Mexico, he took a short sabbatical and skipped over to London, where he met his future wife Shannon Olivas who is the other half of the Ceviche Project, responsible for all the logistics in the front of the house and even a few of their tasty desserts. It was Octavio’s short stint as a bartender abroad that sparked his interest in the restaurant industry and was later a catalyst for his desire to start the Ceviche Project.

Octavio moved back to Mexico to continue his career as a lawyer, though after two years in a long distant relationship, made the move to new York City to join Shannon. upon his arrival to NYC, Octavio’s cravings for ceviche confronted him almost immediately. after sampling what NYC had to offer, he was surprisingly disappointed, as nothing came close to the freshness and flavors that he came to love and expect as a child.

It was during this time when he started taking his craft seriously. now, let’s not get things twisted here. though Octavio hadn’t found his NYC ceviche love, he still made sure to dine in many of the best restaurants that new York City has to offer. these fantastic experiences allowed him to analyze the techniques that many chefs were using as well as the quality of their ingredients. This influenced Octavio’s own methods as he began to cultivate and shape his own recipes.

A few years ago, opportunities for a life in California came knocking and soon the couple decided to make the trek west to Los Angeles. It was here that Octavio and Shannon decided to take their love for cooking and entertaining to the next level. each Month they hosted private dinner parties making and serving original cocktails and ceviche to their friends. Octavio experimented with different ingredients for his ceviches, and soon friends and family began  pushing him to think about opening a place of his own. as Octavio and Shannon began to notice the increasing popularity for pop-up restaurants throughout Los Angeles, they decided to take a leap of faith and came up with the concept for Ceviche Project.

Dustin Lancaster, owner of Bar Covell and L&E Oyster heard about Octavio and his amazing ceviche dishes, and immediately offered him the use of Bar Covell’s Side Bar space for their pop-up debut. the event was a success, and since that initial venture in November of 2011, Octavio and Shannon (with full time jobs) have put on one dinner a month inside such venues as: the Pattern Bar, Palate Food and Wine and L&E Oyster, to name a few. Their latest venture was a five course, forty-seat ceviche & wine brunch at Vinoteca on may 20th.

“THE KEY AND MENTALITY TO THE CEVICHE PROJECT IS FRESHNESS” Octavio Olivas

I jumped at the opportunity to join the Olivas’ on an early Saturday morning to select the fish and oysters that they would be serving for their service at Vinoteca. Our drive downtown was quick and effortless and as we arrived to our first destination, a security guard presented us with a sign-in sheet and then, we were on our way.

The white sanitized building reminded me more of a suburban business park than a seafood wholesale market. here, there was no interaction with the fishmongers. instead, Octavio paid for his kumamotos through a cashers window, walked outside and received a small boxed filled with 14 dozen oysters farmed in Baja that were deposited from a small roll-up metal garage.

It was only a couple blocks over to our second stop. upon entering International Marine Products Inc. I quickly became acclimated to the strong smell of fish as I struggled to keep up with the Olivas’ who were working on a tight schedule.  This was difficult, since I kept getting distracted by all the beautiful fish lying peacefully on beds of ice, by the Japanese men I saw going through baskets of Sweet Shrimp, picking out only the best for their evenings service and by the in-house employees who seemed to be walking around in spacesuits to keep warm as they carved, deboned and fileted pounds and pounds of fish.

As a staunch supporter of Ocean-Friendly Seafood, Octavio made sure to only purchase fish that are sustainably abundant and are caught or farmed in environmentally friendly ways. He also made sure to  examined each fish he purchased by feeling their bodies firmness, analyzing their gills, eyes, smell and most importantly their taste.

After picking out each and every fish, the loquacious chef chatted with all the employees, curious about the new catches of the season, which of course serve as inspiration for  what could be recipes for next month’s Ceviche Project. in all honestly, I could have hung out there all afternoon. It was Shannon, who, charged with the task of managing the days schedule, put her foot down and got us out of there in a timely manner.

THE BRUNCH

I arrived at Vinoteca the following morning a couple hours before the start of service. as I opened the glass door to the long-narrow space, the Olivas’ were already hard at work prepping their Mise en place and counting/organizing all of their cutlery, plates and bowls. one could imagine the difficulty and stress involved in preparing  such a meal for forty guests while having to transport all the necessary accouterments to make it happen, though Octavio and Shannon seemed to do it all with ease.

As service was nearing its start, the duo seemed to transform the space into their own. the guests, mostly young professionals soon piled in the small room filling every seat in house while the soft sounds of 1940’s Cumbia from Octavio’s private collection provided the finishing touch to an already extraordinary atmosphere.

All of the plating was done on a very small space along the bar in front of the guests- something very much a part of the Ceviche Project’s  inclusive experience. Oyster’s on the half shell was the first dish served after a short introduction by Octavio. the three Kumamotos were accompanied by different mignonettes; with one nestled inside a mason jar filled with applewood smoke. these were a great introduction to the fresh flavors of the sea that were to follow.

Before the second dish was served, baskets of thinly sliced, lightly fried plantains “chips” made way to all the tables and were meant to eat along with Octavio’s homemade hot sauce.  This sauce unique and addicting was not just for the plantains, but also for all the ceviches. It made a lasting impression as many customers queried on where they could buy this special sauce.

Moments later, the long awaited Tiradito was placed before all the guests. This Peruvian style ceviche was by far the most visually stunning. the gorgeous cuts of translucent pieces of raw Kampachi supported delicate rings of sweet onion, pomegranate and sunflower shoots, which were soaked with passion fruit leche de Tigre (tiger’s milk). as the dishes were laid in front of each guest, smiles lit up the room.

The ceviche de camaron came next, flavors that anyone who has ever had ceviche before would recognize and find familiar. the Florida shrimp, just coming into season, were finely diced and marinated in a broth of lime, tomato, onion, cilantro, Serrano pepper and avocado. though this beautiful bowl of shellfish was enjoyed by all in the cramped dining room, this is the type of dish  you would crave while in the idealized setting of a Corona commercial-  I felt this dish was a tribute of sorts to Octavio’s memories of Mexico.

The halibut couldn’t have come sooner. the ceviche was served with a tostada shell and, jumbled together with tangerine, lime, cucumber, sunflower seeds, red jalapenos, red onion and olives- paying homage to both California’s eclectic produce and to the influences of Octavio’s travels abroad.

Ice cream is one of the few fitting desserts that could excite the palate after a good helping of citrus marinated seafood. the coconut infused ice cream came last; it was agglomerated with plum sugar and chitlepins by Shannon. the soft, milky texture with small slivers of coconut was a cool and refreshing treat. the chitlepin shrub provided the perfect hint of heat as it slid down your throat, proving to be a impeccable finish to this ceviche centric meal.

As this unique experience came to an end, I understood what Octavio meant by referring to the Ceviche Projectas a way of life. not only are his pop-ups a time to indulge in ceviche of the highest caliber, but they’re also an opportunity to take part in a tradition that  dates back to the ancient Incan Empire. It is a monthly treasure and celebration of the intoxicating flavors of fermented fruit and the energetic sounds of the Latin world.  It is a meal where you won’t feel the urge to pull out your iPhone and can allow yourself to unplug from the rest of the world. It is an environment where you will get to know the people sitting across from you and converse over which ceviches you loved the most. It is a concept created with love, warmth and integrity; one of which I hope becomes a permanent fixture in our city, very, very soon.

THE CITRIC CURE


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