When ordering at Avenida, stick to dishes from the grill.
People with manners say it’s rude to text during dinner. Though these are the same people who have no friends to text anyway, I try to engage in telecommunications temperance. But sometimes, there are extenuating circumstances.
Gingerly as an Operation all-star, I lifted those circumstances—a catch of shrimp heaped upon dry shredded lettuce like dead Trojan soldiers on a funeral pyre—with my fork. The crustaceans were the marquee attraction in the ceviche at Mount Airy’s magnanimous Avenida—and they were raw. Not sorta raw, not kinda raw, not raw in spots where the lime-tequila marinade hadn’t yet worked its citric acid magic. Just plain raw.
When extenuating circumstances come up, and you have friends, coincidentally eating in the same restaurant, just a wood-trimmed tangerine dining-room wall and three-stool cherrywood bar serving Spanish beers and Latin cocktails between you, it’s rude not to text. This wasn’t ceviche. This was cat food on top of rabbit food.
I texted my pal: Ceviche is raw, like gray and translucent on top of lettuce.
My pixie-sweet server floated by in a black T-shirt featuring a sunlit Mayan pyramid, Avenida’s logo and a fitting metaphor for the owners, chefs Edgar and Kim Alvarez. In 2004, the couple transformed a century-old emporium, Delaware Market, into Gladwyne’s gourmet food destination, but last year the recession-challenged business collapsed like the Mayan civilization. With business partner Wayne Zukin, the Alvarezes regrouped and opened Avenida on Germantown Avenue—the name means “avenue” in Spanish—in the home of the shuttered Cresheim Cottage Café, a circa-1700s home furnished with original woodwork, a stone fireplace and a resident ghost. Spruced up with citrusy paint and a smattering of Spanish objects d’art, Avenida is instantly likeable on looks alone. The ceviche was an unfortunate distraction, one my server whisked away as my phone chirped.
From my friend: I love the el biche! And the guac.
I didn’t get the guacamole, but like my friend, I also loved the el biche. It’s short for biche de pescado, a mesmerizing fish stock-based Ecuadorian soup spiced with cumin, coriander and celery seed. A wedge of lime sat on the rim of the chic blue glass bowl, as if the biche was some tropical cocktail. I certainly could have drunk it like one—and for the record, the shrimp, scallops and red snapper were all cooked, succulently so.
I replied: I had the biche too. Awesome, bright and limey.
Friend: Octopus is the most tender I’ve had.
Word on that too. Ursula proved no match for the Alvarezes, who simmer whole cephalopods in citrus juices, soda and beer. Grilled, the long wavy tentacles crisscrossed thick-stemmed watercress like railroad tracks, its intense smokiness balanced by lively roasted garlic and tomato sauce spiked with tequila. The Alverezes' deftness on the grill appeared again in an entrée featuring achiote-and-garlic oil-marinated shrimp and scallops over nutty but underseasoned quinoa speckled with chopped chayote.
Getting the feeling everything grilled here is good. I dig the grilled scallops and shrimp. Tamales are a little doughy , I texted to my friend .
In retrospect, “pasty” would’ve been a better word for the tamales, which depart from tradition in both their wrapping (broad green banana leaves, the preferred Central American packaging, instead of cornhusks) and the fat from which the Alvarezes make the masa. Tradition calls for lard. The Alvarezes use Crisco, making them vegetarian. And pasty. Two tamales came with the order, damming a sludgy tomato, eggplant, pepper and green olive recado and hiding a jalapeño stem. My feelings toward the tres leches cake with tooth-achingly sweet mango sorbet were similar, but at least the prices are applied more gently than the sugar. Dinner for two, including tip and a bitters-tanned pisco sour, cost less than $100. The ceviche was not on the check.
It was on my friend’s, though. “We ordered it,” he told me after we convened on snow-lined Germantown Avenue. And? “The shrimp were raw. We saw bunch of ceviches go back to the kitchen.” How they could have left the kitchen in the first place is the real mystery. Avenida radiates charm and warmth—just not enough to cook the food. ■
For more on Philly's food scene, visit blogalicious-adam.blogspot.com.
7402 Germantown Ave. 267.385.6857
Hours: Tues.-Sat., 5pm-10pm; Sun., 5pm-9pm.
Lunch at Rybrew is quick and cool