It’s spring, which means that it is time for seasonal restaurants to change their menus. The latest to hold a media introduction is Central 214 at The Hotel Palomar at Central and Mockingbird in Dallas. The takeaway from the event is that chef Graham Dodds is showing why he is one of the best chefs in Dallas.
We started with an amuse of bruschetta. Some were slathered with fava bean paste made with a little mint and lemon juice and accented with truffle oil. The others had a house made chicken liver paste daintily topped with borage flowers. Accompanying these starters was a bowl of four types of olives that had been marinated in balsamic, olive oil and rosemary (from the chef’s own garden, nonetheless) for two full weeks before being warmed for service.
A light salad of red beets, candy apple onions, radish seeds, coriander berries and house made ricotta followed. It would be the perfect lunch or start to the evening meal proper. So often when I eat out, the starting salad seems to signal “expect less to come”, so minimal is it. This one is the opposite: a talisman of plenty to come – unusual ingredients, creative combinations, and careful execution.
Another salad, but at the opposite scale of complexity, was a last-minute addition. Dodds was at Tom Spicer’s earlier in the day and found some irresistible arugula. He had to buy it. For us he assembled it tossed with just parmesan, olive oil, Meyer lemon, salt and pepper. Summary: an exercise in studied simplicity that put the characteristic bitterness of arugula front and center.
Fancy egg and bacon? Dodds has the best expression of it in town. First, start with a fried local goose egg. The yolk is a full 6 centimeters across (I know, I was with someone who measures round things in centimeters all day). Add some house made mocetta (made from goat supplied by Windy Hill Organics in Comanche, TX) cured for 60 days and then hung for an additional 60. Add Tassione Farms raw radishes for contrast, and you have the first of two dishes we tasted that night that entered into my Hall of Fame for Dallas culinary classics. The picture at the top does some justice to its visual effect, showing off the bands of color in the mocetta that make the slices resemble a bed of flags for the egg to rest on.
Dodds is a corn lover. So a concasse he calls just Elotes but assembled from corn, choritzo (from Salumeria Rossi on Manhatten’s upper west side) and mirepoix should not have been a surprise. He reduces this mixture with chicken stock, then blends it with chèvre, salt, pepper and minced jalapeño and tops it with espellette pepper. I expect this marvelous side dish will be available seasonally.
I am delighted to report another octopus sighting following John Tesar’s successful rendition of it at his underground dinner three weeks ago. O2, as I’ll term it, came grilled with marcona almonds, watercress, and ‘tuscan salsa verde’. The adjective ‘tuscan’ is really there just to avoid confusion with tomatillo salsa. This salsa is made with parsley, basil, cilantro, mustard, capers and white anchovies (maybe he should have called it tapenade vert?). I didn’t ask, but I assume the octopus had been boiled first as it was succulent and easy to chew – the texture a mite firmer than pasta. Apparently, good octopus is hard to source in Dallas so Dodds has an unusual sourcing arrangement with a certain sushi restaurant. It involves him going to the kitchen door ‘cash in hand’.
On to meats and what is disingenuously named honey-thyme glazed porchetta, squash blossom fritters and sugo comes in as simply one of the best pork dishes that I have ever tasted. Just pick up the squash blossom fritter on top (it is not greasy) and savor the sweetness of the batter and the mild bitterness in the blossom juxtaposed against the creaminess of goat cheese. Then return to the plate and cut the ring of pork belly wrapped around pork shoulder with your fork and slop some sauce on top. Place it in your mouth and wonder at how complex a sauce can be (and how long it can embrace the tongue). That is because this particular sauce is cooked for twenty hours (that’s longer than the longest non-stop airline flight in the world)! The pork jowl, tomatoes, garlic and basil gently stew until the individual flavors are totally resolved. I state the steps involved in the making of this food,
even at the risk of belaboring it, because although most farm-to-table restaurants have casual décor and a come-as-you-are philosophy the best ones have not relaxed in any way traditional rigor in the preparation and nothing just gets slopped on the plate. Dodds, and other examples like Jeff Harris (at Bolsa) and David Trubenbach (at Asador) are making preparations just as involved as those chefs with a more classical methodology such as Bruno Davaillon (at The Mansion) and Andre Natera (at The Pyramid).
Back to fish and a striped bass bourride with fennel, leeks and saffron. This drew a lot of its flavor from the mussels in the stew.
As though we would die without it, not one, but three desserts. Panne cotta with rhubarb, polenta and black cherry cobbler. All noteworthy.
Some favorites remain from the menu sampled by His Toddness. Dodds cannot replace the scotch egg or “popcorn” sweetbreads due to customer acclaim. Likewise, the best fries in Dallas remain on the bar menu.
Right now, Hotel Palomar has got one leg of the four needed to make Central 214 a great restaurant, and the most important one at that – a dedicated, talented chef. The other three are scheduled to be completed later this year. First, a permanent front of house manager. Second, a redecoration of the room: It is not bad now – it just has the intimacy of an airline terminal. The final leg is the wine situation. The list appears to derive straight from Kimpton central sourcing. It is overwhelmingly second-tier California labels. And despite the farm-to-table philosophy there are no table wines from Texas (despite the availability of good Viognier and Tempranillo at competitive prices). And there is next to nothing from Europe. There is also no sommelier, a problem that showed up on our visit when the bar served not one but different several wines too warm.
I hear they also plan to change the name. That sounds, to me, like a bad idea. Already Nana has been renamed with an unpronounceable symbol from a quantum physics equation. We don’t need people who have found Central 214 to have to recalibrate as well.
Whatever they decide to do, Central 214 has some of the best food in the city right now. Dodds blew away two California wine makers I went with for lunch last month. Give him a chance to blow you away as well.