In more than one way, a meal at Celeste feels like eating in the home of partners JuanMa Calderón and Maria Rondeau. I’m fairly sure a version of this sentence will appear in anything written about the restaurant. But “home” can mean many things. Here, it’s an expansive definition, a place where extremely interesting people continually rotate through, something good is bubbling on the stove, and there is always a bottle of wine ready to be opened.
It feels so intimate in part because of the size: The Union Square spot is 600 square feet. The white walls are decorated with artworks and an aqua neon logo, a soccer match projected onto one. There is an open kitchen with chef Calderón at the stove, a small bar, a line of little tables, just 24 seats in all. The number isn’t random. For the last few years, before opening Celeste (pronounced as it is in Spanish: Ce-les-tay) in March, Calderón and Rondeau ran a pop-up restaurant in their home. There the table, with extensions, accommodates 24. The couple had never run a restaurant before, but they knew they could handle feeding that many.
It feels so personal in part because of the recipes. Calderón learned them from his mother in his native Peru. This isn’t restaurant food, but a kind of cooking that leaves you in envy of Calderón’s childhood table. The menu is small, a good portion of it devoted to specials, with things that sound simple — arroz con pollo (chicken and rice), lomo saltado (stir-fried beef), assorted stews — and taste simply, thrillingly good.
More than anything, a meal here is reminiscent of a dinner party thrown by a group of friends. Service is friendly, not polished. The people behind Celeste don’t have culinary backgrounds. Calderón is a filmmaker, Rondeau an architect: On display at the restaurant is a groovy film poster for the experimental “Amores Gatos,” which Calderón wrote and directed and Rondeau produced. Paola Ibarra, the bar manager, is a writer and an assistant program director at Harvard. Juan Obando, the creative director, who designed the restaurant’s logo and website, teaches at MassArt. His work “focuses on the critical intervention of social circuits through the orchestration of temporary situations.” Maybe you’re eating dinner. Maybe you’re participating in an installation that asks you to examine class, culture, nourishment, and how the signifiers of setting influence your perceptions of what’s on the plate. Either or both, there’s plenty of interest here to chew on.
It is certain that your meal must begin with ceviche, the definitive Peruvian dish of seafood “cooked” in citrus juice that is the cornerstone of the menu. It’s bright and refreshing, with a mellow heat from the Peruvian chile ají amarillo. (You can also order it hot, in which case it will be made with the spicier rocoto pepper.) First try the version with mixed seafood — blue cod, shrimp, and tender rings of squid, artfully piled with slivers of red onion, bites of sweet potato, and kernels of Peruvian corn, some boiled, some toasted for crunch.
Then there’s a crudo of scallops, sliced thin, swimming in that tart ceviche juice and sprinkled with herbs. Tiradito de atún is essentially Peruvian-style tuna sashimi, the crimson fish served over avocado with a soy-based sauce, sprinkled with sesame seeds and topped with arugula, beside dots of ají amarillo on the plate. The dish reflects the influence of Japanese immigrants on Peruvian food, which resulted in the country’s nikkei cuisine (“nikkei” means Japanese ancestry).
You could easily, happily order them all and a few pisco sours and call it a night. But then you’d be missing the excellent causas, cold terrines of cooked, mashed potato layered with various fillings: tuna salad, shrimp. The one with avocado and tomato comes drizzled in three sauces, each with its own distinct, and distinctly Peruvian, flavor: huancaina, a creamy yellow sauce made with ají amarillo; a similar pink version made with rocoto peppers; and a green squiggle containing huacatay, the Andean herb known as black mint.
Chifa is the Chinese-influenced analog to nikkei cuisine in Peru. On Celeste’s menu, we see dishes like the classic lomo saltado, a stir-fry prepared here with red onions, tomatoes, and big, juicy pieces of beef, still pink on the inside. It’s just so deeply flavorful, the concentrated jus inflected with ginger. Sudado de pescado is another fine Peruvian-Chinese dish, steamed blue cod and vegetables in a sauce of soy, ginger, and scallions.
I welcomed the expected comforts of arroz con pollo, the rice green and piquant with cilantro, served with lime wedges to squeeze on top. But I was enthralled by a Wednesday-night special, estofado de lengua, or tongue stew, a dish I didn’t know and I’m glad I now do. The meat is fork-tender, served beside rice in a rich, orange-brown sauce — Mexican mole meets ají panca, a red Peruvian chile — that also contains nubbins of carrots that practically melt in the mouth. I’ll be back to eat it all fall.
There are two desserts here, both worth ordering: suspiro limeño, a dulce de leche custard topped with a miniature range of meringue peaks, and mousse de lucuma, a fruit with a nutty, warm flavor sometimes described as “sweet potato meets maple syrup.” (Move over, pumpkin spice.)
Because it’s a house party, a little unevenness feels par for the course, and some bland beans one night or a mixed ceviche too heavy on the cod another barely register. You’re not here for perfection, you’re here for the mood. The drinks support it. The pisco sours, tart with lime and frothy with egg white, are just right. A version made with a shot of chicha, the drink of purple corn brewed with fruit and cinnamon, is delicious too. There’s mezcal for sipping, along with its Chihuahuan cousin sotol. The beer list leans toward the sour and the wild, which suits the food well, but you can also get a Peruvian Cusqueña. And the wine selection is concise and compelling: A Chilean país, served lightly chilled, is really wonderful with that tongue stew one recent hot night.
The AC is only half-functioning. Rondeau’s daughter sits with her mother at the bar. Everyone is sweating and laughing, striking up conversation with the strangers at the next table. The mood at Celeste is light and gracious. Maybe one reason it always feels that way is that the operators, ever project-based in their work, see the restaurant as a finite endeavor. They plan to run it for five years, Rondeau says. Then they’ll return to a life that incorporates more travel. (A previous co-production involved turning Rondeau’s family home in Antigua, Guatemala, into a residential art program.) It helps take the pressure off, at least a little.
Rondeau tells me about the last movie they made, “Amores Gatos,” an absurd comedy filmed over five sleepless, madcap days with people who traveled from 12 different countries to be there. On one level, it’s about an out-of-work man living in a foreign country who becomes a cat sitter, and the adventures that ensue. But really, it’s about being a foreigner who is out of place and out of context. “It’s a different portrait of a Latino community,” one made up of artists, Rondeau says. “It’s another view of what the Latino experience would be.”
Celeste is its own portrait, sketched through the food, the design, the human experience. Just about every kitchen in town is staffed by Latinos, often invisibly. Everyone who works at Celeste is a native Spanish speaker. They come from all over: Peru, Guatemala, Mexico, Colombia, Puerto Rico. Celeste artist-in-residence Cherman Quino, from Peru, has created a series of sky-blue-on-white portraits of cultural figures from that country — from singer and composer Chabuca Granda to Julio Tello, the Quechua-speaking father of Peruvian archeology. Chilean artist Daniela Rivera, who has exhibited at the MFA and teaches at Wellesley, addresses gun violence through an installation in one corner, a shimmering curtain made of bullet casings. Like everything Calderón and Rondeau create, Celeste is a collaboration. It is a restaurant, but it is an art project, too.
★ ★ ★
21 Bow St., Union Square, Somerville, 617-616-5319, www.celesteunionsquare.com All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Appetizers $8-$18. Entrees $16-$25. Desserts $8.
Hours Mon-Thu 5-10 p.m., Fri-Sat 5-11 p.m.
Noise level A soundtrack of chicha doesn’t interfere with chitchat.
May we suggest Mixed ceviche, scallop crudo, causa de avocado and tomato, lomo saltado, sudado de pescado, estofado de lengua.
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Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.