If you’re going to open a Peruvian restaurant in Miami, you’d better know what you’re doing; local diners are a discerning bunch when it comes to who’s got the freshest ceviche or the tastiest lomo saltado.
Enter Ceviche Lovers, a new restaurant on a South Miami corner once occupied by ROK:BRGR. Chef-owner Javier Florez says he’s always liked the vibe of South Miami and had first hoped to land the location when it became available 10 years ago. “God reserved the opportunity for me, however,” he says with a smile. “And now, here I am.”
Florez, 48, has always had a passion for food, even as a young child growing up in Lima, Peru. He fondly recalls Sunday dinners at abeula’s house, where the entire family gathered and cooked all day. “I was just five or six then, but I can still smell those wonderful aromas that came from the kitchen,” he says, his eyes misting slightly. “While my cousins were outside playing, I just wanted to stay in the kitchen where all the cooking was going on.”
Growing up in coastal Peru meant a plentiful supply of fresh fish and seafood. Florez recalls many happy days at the beach surfing and fishing with friends. After working up an appetite, they’d prepare ceviche with the day’s catch using limes, peppers and other ingredients they brought along with them. For the young surfers, it was a light but high-protein meal – fresh, delicious and cheap.
Florez pursued his passion for cooking and at age 17 enrolled in one of Peru’s top culinary schools, where he quickly excelled. In an annual competition, student chefs competed in three categories: Peruvian, Seafood and Italian. Florez swept all three. Years later, after distinguishing himself in kitchens in Lima and Miami, he was honored in 2014 with the Golden Knife Award, presented each year to the best Peruvian chef in the U.S.
At Ceviche Lovers, guests will find plenty of the passion and creativity that have fueled Florez’s career in the kitchen, along with nods to the Chinese, Japanese and Italian influences that have shaped Peruvian cuisine for generations. “It will be a fresh, modern take on all of the different flavors that make Peruvian food so popular,” Florez promises.
His Lomo Saltado combines tender strips of beef sauteed with sliced onions and tomatoes in a flavorful soy and wine reduction, accompanied by a creamy pesto risotto. Florez takes a fresh approach to sushi with his Smoked Salmon Tartar Acevichado roll, which features chopped smoked salmon, avocado, grilled pineapple, and togarashi, topped with Acevichado sauce – “the “queen of Ceviche Lovers’ sauces,” Florez says – along with minced cucumber and Peruvian native potato chips.
As its name implies, however, ceviche is the star of the show at this restaurant, and Florez offers several takes on this classic dish of fresh fish “cooked” in a bath of lime juice and hot peppers. The eponymous Ceviche Lovers version features fresh corvina – the fish of choice for many ceviche chefs – bathed in leche de tigre, a bracing lime juice concoction that’s said to have aphrodisiacal qualities. All ceviche dishes here are served with the traditional accompaniments of choclo (boiled large-kernel Peruvian corn), camote (boiled sweet potato) and canchas (crispy-fried corn kernels).
With a planned early-summer opening just weeks away, Florez and his crews have been busy putting the finishing touches on the space. “We completely gutted the building and basically rebuilt it – new walls, new floors, new everything,” Florez says. “It’s much brighter now, much more open and inviting.” The 45-seat interior dining room incorporates colors and textures of the sand and surf of Florez’s coastal Peru, he says.
Outside, Ceviche Lovers takes full advantage of its prime corner location with a wraparound patio perfect for people-watching. The 75 outdoor seats are cooled by a misting system that lowers the ambient temperature as much as 10 degrees on a hot SOMI-summer day, Florez says. If you want to cool off even more, order an Espinel, a proprietary beer Florez offers only at his restaurant. “With just a hint of lime and salt, it evokes memories of all those days at the beach surfing, making ceviche and having fun with friends,” he says.
– Peter B. Laird