Have you ever been nervous to use a coat rack? It’s generally a pretty straightforward process. Sure, it can get a little hairy if you have to pile your coat on top of five or six others, trying to find just the right angle so your collar clings to the hook, but usually it’s pretty simple. You take off your coat and you put it on the rack.
But at Celeste, a Peruvian restaurant in Union Square, you might find that it’s not so easy, and that’s because you won’t be 100% sure that the nest of metal wiring and colorful orbs on the wall by the bathroom is even a coat rack at all. It could be art, it could be something that was accidentally left behind by the contractors, or it could be the world’s worst diagram of the solar system.
The coat rack won’t be the only thing in here that throws you for a loop. There’s the little nook of stovetop burners and pans that you can’t possibly believe is the entire kitchen. There’s the building itself, which looks more likely to house a storefront massage parlor than a Peruvian restaurant. And there’s the menu, which, while otherwise pretty meaty, appears to feature a ceviche dish that doesn’t even contain fish. Is that even legal?
But not knowing quite what to expect in here is half the fun. Celeste almost feels more like a pop-up than a permanent restaurant, a little spot run by artists who also happen to be great cooks. It’s smaller than a freshman-year dorm room and is decorated with a few modern art pieces and a neon light. And the menu, which changes frequently, is barely the length of a certain public servant’s morning tweetstorm. But that’s all part of the charm - it’s a pop-up restaurant that gave in when the neighborhood begged for it to stick around.
When you do figure out what to do with your coat, you should start with the ceviche. In fact, you should probably keep coming here until you’ve tried all the ceviches (there are two that stay on the menu every night, and at least two more will probably pop up as nightly specials). Don’t be ashamed if you end up drinking the marinade with a spoon after you finish the fish - this stuff is so good that it makes most other ceviche dishes seem like lazy sushi salsa. And that vegetarian one? The one that swaps out ahi tuna for hearts of palm and artichokes? It might actually be the best one they make.
The rest of the menu is a collection of only about eight or nine entrees that change almost daily and frequently have a Peruvian-Chinese bent to them. We liked the stews best - rich blends of shredded meats and vegetables that balance savory and sweet - but just about everything is worth trying once.
If you live in the neighborhood, grabbing a stool at the (tiny) bar for ceviche and a mezcal cocktail should be a weekly occurrence. Otherwise, you’ll probably have to plan ahead to get in here because it’s packed every night. Go ahead and do it. Booking a week or two in advance, schlepping to a neighborhood with no T access, and having an embarrassing moment with your coat when you first get in is a small price to pay for food this good.
Ceviche de Palm and Artichoke Hearts
Does it actually count as ceviche if there’s no fish involved? Don’t worry about semantics, order this.
Tiradito de Atun
It’s raw tuna with sesame seeds, oil and vegetables, and if Celeste isn’t invited to make it for the next state dinner between the Peruvian and Chinese heads of state, it will be a tremendous loss.
Crudo de Scallop con Salsa de Ceviche
The scallops are sliced as thin as pocket change, and while you shouldn’t eat pocket change, you should definitely eat this.
Potato a la Huancaina
Cold potatoes served with a spicy white sauce. If you think you’ve tried every type of potato salad there is, then, 1) what are you, some kind of potato salad trophy hunter? That’s kinda weird. And, 2) there’s a good chance you haven’t actually had them all until you’ve had this.
Chaufa de Mariscos
It’s almost paella, it’s almost Chinese style seafood fried rice, and it’s very good.
Sometimes when we hear the word “stew,” we picture a little old lady hunched over a rusty cauldron in a ramshackle English cottage, stirring some goopy brown stuff with one hand and shooing chickens away with the other. But with pork, chicken, potatoes, peanuts, and some kind of magical sauce that could replace oil as the world’s most important natural resource, this isn’t that kind of stew.
You’ve had beef sirloin better than this. Skip it and order another ceviche.