Local hospitality vets Juan and Manuel Olivera just brought Adams Morgan a candle-lit getaway that pays homage to the brothers’ native Uruguay and its surrounding countries. Two-level Ceibo quietly arrived at the bottom of the dining-dense strip last week (2106 18th Street NW).
Growing up in Uruguay’s capital of Montevideo, the Olivera siblings’ passion for food was sparked by the communal culture of asado — the time-honored tradition of cooking prized South American meats like beef, pork, chicken, and chorizo over open fire.
Ceibo caters to carnivores out of the gate with a silver bowl of bite-size pork cheese chunks served with homemade bread. Other meaty orders include Milanesa rellena (breaded and fried tenderloin topped with ham); veal tongue paired with parsley, onions, garlic, carrots, and quail eggs; pork sausage dumplings; and strip loin steak accompanied by chimichurri, king mushrooms, and potatoes. Ceibo, now open Wednesday to Sunday from 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., plans to extend nighttime hours and add weekend brunch down the line.
The name Ceibo — pronounced “say-bo” — refers to the flowering South American tree blooming at the bottom of the continent. Its crimson-colored bud is the national flower of both Uruguay and Argentina. The whitewashed space is spruced up with leafy potted plants, reclaimed wood, restored furniture pieces, and a lime paint stucco wall. Glowing orbs of light, mirrored accents, and flickering votive candles placed in front of diners contribute to a romantic look at night.
Since moving to the D.C. area two decades ago, the related co-owners have worked with an array of cuisines. Juan, best known for his former role as culinary director for Italian empire Lahlou Restaurant Group (Lupo Verde, Lupo Pizzeria, Lupo Marino), also manned the kitchen at Barcelona Wine Bar and Napoli Pasta Bar. More recently, Manuel was the opening force and general manager at U Street’s Peruvian playground El Secreto de Rosita and previously held stints at Spanish-themed spots like Del Mar and Barcelona Wine Bar.
Seafood highlights at Ceibo include oysters adorned with Black River caviar farmed in Uruguay, a rotating whole fish entree, and hamachi crudo plated with grapefruit, tarragon, and olive oil. Patagonian shrimp caught off the icy Atlantic coast of southern Argentina, placed on a dome of rice, is slathered with a rich smoked paprika sauce poured tableside.
Sweet potatoes, one of Uruguay’s biggest exports, also plays a prevalent part across the menu. The starchy root vegetable sliced in half shows up as a savory starter or dessert married with creme fraiche and dark chocolate. The burnt-orange favorite also makes its way into the Boniato cocktail alongside whiskey and sweet vermouth.
Other ingredients and techniques speak to the 20th-century waves of immigrants coming to the region from Spain, Italy, France, and Portugal. A plate of pickled eggplant, for instance, loops in ricotta, truffle honey, sourdough breadcrumbs, and romesco sauce.
The dimly-lit basement bar, accessed via a short set of brick stairs off 18th Street or within the restaurant, spotlights South American and European spirits like fernet, grappa, and vermouth, plants like yerba mate and cedrón (lemon verbena), and Barcelona’s beloved beer Estrella Damm. The wine list curated by Ceibo’s Level 1-certified sommelier brother Manuel will eventually balloon to 50 bottles, with a focus on Old World and South American varietals and biodynamic producers.
Juan studied gastronomy at the Escuela Superior de Hotelería at home in Montevideo before heading to Europe to stage at restaurants in Lyon, France and Florence, Italy.
As co-founders of Just Add Water Inc., the brothers spent the last two years collaborating and consulting for local restaurants and bars like Vera and B Social Restaurant Group.