Culinary Star in Nation’s Capital
(click photo)

Washington , D.C. has been harboring a secret for the last decade; a secret that is getting harder and harder to keep from the nation.  Alhough D.C. was noted as a magnet for excellent ethnic cuisine in the past, it never savored a reputation for fine dining.

Maybe it was the conservative streak prevalent in the city and surrounding suburbs, or maybe it was a reputation of having loads of lowly paid federal workers lacking sophisticated palates and owning tightly zipped wallets.  Whatever the reason, the sidewalks of D.C. basically folded at night.  Those were the days when gourmands in search of great food traveled to the likes of Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York City.

Ceiba Tree.

A secret no more!  Over the last decade, Washington, D.C. dining has arrived on the culinary scene in a big way, easily competing with culinary greats such as San Francisco and New York.  One of the more innovative and latest entries into the world of sophisticated dining is Ceiba — a Latin-American fusion restaurant with contemporary flair and urban chic.  The restaurant’s name is the same as the magnificent umbrella-shaped ceiba tree.  Native throughout the American tropics, the ceiba was considered sacred by the ancient Maya, supposedly connecting earth with the celestial heavens.  One thing is for certain about Ceiba — its star is rapidly rising.

Reaching For The Stars

Ceiba offers an engaging menu inspired by our neighbors to the South:   Brazil, Cuba, the Caribbean, El Salvador, and Peru.  Specialties also include Mexican fresh flavors and favorites from Veracruz and the Yucatan.  What is presented is a wonderful fusion of exotic and festive tastes, capturing the world of sun-drenched lands with a vigor and intensity without equal on today’s dining scene.

Of course, you will recognize classic dishes such as Cuban Black Bean Soup and Red Snapper Veracruz.  However, with the use of innovative ingredients and novel cooking techniques, these are elevated to new levels of culinary pleasure.

Ceiba is the inspiration and latest venture of Executive Chef Jeff Tunks, along with co-owners Gus DiMillo and David Wizenberg. Their earlier entrants on the capital scene include popular D.C. Coast and thriving Ten Penh.

Chris Clime is Ceiba’s Chef de Cuisine, having spent part of his childhood in Ceiba, Puerto Rico, where he developed a fondness for local culture and ethnic cuisine. David Guas is the Executive Pastry Chef for Ceiba - a native of New Orleans with Cuban heritage.  (Guas has been named the 2004-2005 Washington’s Pastry Chef of the Year by the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington.) 

Ethnic Drinks and Boutique Vineyards

701 14th Street, NW
(Corner of 14th and G)
Washington, D.C.   20004
(Reservations recommended)

Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11:30 a. m. – 2:30 p.m.
Dinner:  Monday-Thursday, 5:30 -10:30 p.m.
Friday-Saturday: 5:30 p.m. 11:00 p.m.

Ceiba specializes in those delectable drinks from the land of sun — mojitos, caipirinhas, pisco sours, and margaritas.  A favorite with the urban crowd and reputedly Hemingway, is the mojito, a concoction of Cruzan Estate rum, lime, mint, a spritz of soda, and guarapo. (Guarapo is raw sugar cane juice, extracted by means of an on-site sugar cane press.)

Another drink is the Brazilian caipirinha, containing Pitu cachaça, muddled fresh lime and, of course, guarapo.  But my favorite is the “puckery” pisco sour, ever popular in Bolivia and Peru.  It’s made with Montesierpe pisco, house made sweet and sour, egg white, a dash of Angostura bitters, and, of course, guarapo.

Since we will have both appetizers and entrées, I ask our waiter, Scott, for wine-pairing with the meal.  Featuring wines from North to South America, from Canada to Chile, the choices are endless.  However, Scott effortlessly selects three “winners” that prove to be wonderful complements to our different stages of dining. 

Appetizers are for Sharing

Appetizers are varied and generous at Ceiba; they are meant to be shared.  Ranging from conch chowder and black bean soup to duck confit empanadas and stuffed quail, there is something for all tastes.

But it is the ceviche that is a must try; not one, but four different samplings. Even non-ceviche fans will revel in the zesty and tangy marinade tastes of grouper, shrimp, yellowfin tuna, and wild striped bass — presented in a crescendo of spiciness.  My personal favorite is the grouper ceviche “clasico” with lime, manzanilla olives, fresh herbs, and shaved radish.

A truly delightful surprise is Scott’s recommendation of the Anaheim Chili Relleno with Mexican Rock Shrimp and Goat Cheese. I have difficulty remembering savoring such a crispy and delectable chili relleno.  The batter is delicate, ever-so-light, enhancing the combination palette of earth and sea.  Served with a charred yellow tomato salsa that is incredibly fresh, along with a satisfying black bean muñeta, the complement works extremely well.  Alhough I sample chili rellenos everywhere I go, I remained convinced that the best are made in Temecula Valley, California .  However, after tonight, I confess that this one tops anything California ever made!

In Search of Seafood

As co-owner of a bait & fuel dock on the Gulf Coast, my husband, Tom, is most discriminating when it comes to preparing seafood for the table, demanding only the best and freshest of the catch.  For the entrée, he opts for the Whole Crispy Red Snapper Veracruz, garnished with tomatoes, olives, caper, and pickled jalapeño. An artful presentation of colors and texture, Tom says, “This is the best Snapper Veracruz that I have eaten — 'catch of the day' fresh and with the seasoning, exquisitely executed.”

I select Seared Scallop a La Plancha for my entrée. A black bean masa gnocchi along with roasted sweet corn sauce and a Huitlacoche truffle aioli artfully surround these seafood gems. The extra-large pan-seared scallops are succulent, moist, and sweet. My only complaint is that the dish is a tad heavier than I prefer, especially since I am saving room for dessert.

Sweet Endings

have yet to meet Executive Pastry Chef, David Guas, but judging from his photos, I wonder why he isn’t modeling upscale clothes for men’s fashionwear.  On the other hand, the talents and sweetness he brings to the dessert table are “a little bit of heaven.”  The hard choice is deciding which dessert to order, but, then I worry what I will miss.  If only they had a sampler of David’s seven deadly sins — flan, cheesecake, key lime tart, canela tapioca, cinnamon churros, Cuban coffee cake, and house made sorbet. 

Elated to see choices other than ubiquitous chocolate that overwhelms so many dessert menus these days, I decide on traditional flan with coffee, while Tom goes for the vanilla-bean cheesecake with guava topping and mango-lime salad.  Both prove to be sweet endings for an enchanted evening south of the border.

Then comes the lagniappe — something extra: a paper cone of buttery caramel corn, begging to be eaten — although, you may want to take it home for a midnight snack. 

While the restaurant features regional tastes of Latin and South America, nevertheless, Ceiba is world-class in its combination of fusion foods and flavor.  A rising star reaching for the heavens, it is deserving of not just any star, but a brilliant “gold star” rating.

By Karin Leperi, Washington D.C. Correspondent.

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