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Ceiba, 701 14th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20005, (202) 393-3983 At Ceiba, a single meal can sweep you from Mexico to Key West or Brazil to Jamaica. The Latin fusion restaurant, opened in September 2003 by the same team that delivered DC Coast and Ten Penh, takes a freewheeling approach to the cuisines of South and Central America. Among the regional specialities Executive Chef Jeff Tunks gussies up for diners: the Cuban sandwich, Argentine empanadas, Brazilian feijoada, and Baja-style fish tacos. To prepare Ceiba’s menu, Tunks traveled extensively, talking to local chefs and visiting food markets. His culinary exploration pays off with an innovative menu, but two months after opening, the food at Ceiba (pronounced say-ba) is still uneven. Quite a few items are surprisingly bland, and some (a dreadful wild mushroom pupusa comes to mind) desperately need tinkering. As with Ceiba’s sister restaurants, the dining experience is as much about the presentation as it is about the palette. An order of the West Indies conch chowder begins with three plump corn fritters in a boat-shaped bowl. Next, a server pours the soup, a briny broth of vegetables and conch. The final touches � miniature pitchers of island rum and sherry-pepper sauce � are left for the customer to add. The result: a spunky chowder with plenty of backbone and just the right kick. Ceviche fans will find themselves overwhelmed by the number of options Ceiba offers. At dinner, you can try all four for $15, a sampler that easily serves two as a first course. The yellowfin tuna with lime dressing, cucumber, mango, and crushed cashews stands out for its delightful combination of sweet, spicy, creamy, and crunchy ingredients. Ceiba’s fanciful shrimp ceviche “cocktail” � small shrimp and tortilla chips nestled in a pool of pico de gallo � also impresses. With the other ceviches, however, the delicate fish seem to drown in dressing. The same problem presents itself with an otherwise pleasing grilled octopus salad. And those intriguing empanadas � fried envelopes of duck confit, raisins, and olives � turn out to be only mediocre, despite their sophisticated stuffing. A chicken tostado plate suffers from similar lack of pizzazz. Two tortilla crisps come mounded with chicken so finely shredded and heavily sauced it shares the unfortunate consistency of baby food. Ceiba’s kitchen finally shows its promise with its more elegant entrees, particularly its seafood. At lunch, tamarind-crusted tuna pairs perfectly with the soft sweet taste and velvety texture of a Colombian anepa corn cake. Add in spicy tomatillo salsa and tangy onion relish for a dish loaded with flavor. At dinner, halibut swims blissfully in rich tomato-cumin sauce. And on a return visit, we would jump to try the crispy red snapper Veracruz, which arrived at the table beside ours looking fit for a royal banquet. Vinegary chimichurri sauce gives zip to Ceiba’s steaks. On the dessert menu, look no further than the cinnamon-dusted churros, which come with a mug of Mexican hot chocolate so rich and creamy we fought over the last sips. Lunch entrees range from $11 to $16. At dinner, prices average around $22. To sweeten any sticker shock, servers present small parcels of caramel popcorn with the checks. The sweet corn is just one example of small touches that make dining at Ceiba fun. Miniature plastic bulls perch on the rim of Ceiba’s caipirinhas. Condiments arrive in an array of amusing vessels. Service at Ceiba does experience hiccups, however. At one lunch, our entrees emerged in three minutes flat, while our coffee � which Ceiba brews to order in individual french presses � took twice as long to arrive. The restaurant also makes poor use of its immense space. In some areas, tables enjoy several feet of separation, while in other areas they are squeezed so tightly, you’re likely to knock elbows with diners at the next table. One thing we do like: a roomy lounge near the door where customers can wait without crowding into the bar. Indeed, there is a lot to like about Ceiba already. And, given Tunks’ impressive track record at DC Coast and Ten Penh, we expect it to continue improving. � Vanessa Blum is a reporter at Legal Times and Phillip Dub� is an attorney at D.C.’s Covington & Burling.

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