Central 214 execuchef Graham Dodds is delivering on his promise to change the menu seasonally. At a media event last week, he introduced his summer menu and the restaurant showed some progress on other fronts, too. First, the restaurant has a new manager, Sean Kenneavy. He has taken responsibility for one of the major problems I cited earlier, a lackluster wine list. He has substantially redone it with wines drawn more widely than the earlier incarnation of second-tier California offerings. There are now 20 wines by the glass, plus eight dessert wines, and over 100 by the bottle. Sixteen of the wines are sparkling and source from Champagne, California, Italy, and Spain. On the table wine list, France and South America have more representation, but Spain is missing. There are only two token Texans (Red Caboose Syrah/Malbec blend and their blend named ‘Some of That Red’). So consider the list a step in the right direction with room for further improvement.
Cocktails have gone local. As well as the familiar favorites, there are half a dozen that incorporate Texas ingredients – all fresh and as carefully sourced as the menu ingredients. We had a ‘First Course,’ which is a blend of Tom Spicer’s arugula, lime, Texas honey and Hendrick’s gin. Unlike most gin, Hendrick’s is a engaging gargle of cucumber, which made this cocktail savory and summery.
Our meal started with a corn soup made from puréed corn, fennel, onions, garlic, cream, chicken stock and finished with seared foie gras, sautéed chanterelle mushrooms, chive oil and Espellete pepper ($12). It has to be my favorite dish (a tough task for a first course to achieve) due to the harmony of the ingredients: sweet from corn, earthy from the mushrooms and piquancy from the chili. Its ingredients were a sharp contrast to our second course – St. David’s raclette ($12), red lasato potatoes adorned with shaved house mocetta. Dodds and his crew (execsous Jake Depew and sous Eric Wolf) are quite into curing their own meats and vary what they make frequently. This goat leg comes from Windy Hill Organics in Comanche, Texas and the making of the mocetta involves curing it for 60 days followed by hanging for a further 60 days. The meat flavors are intense and salty. The St. David’s raclete comes from Eagle Mountain Farmhouse Cheese just outside Granbury. Dodds says that it is the first Texas raclette that he has come across and it really excites him because raclette is one of his favorite cheeses. This dish was truly authentic to the raclettes that I have had in Switzerland, although this one wasn’t in the ‘serve yourself/family style’ setting I found ubiquitous there.
Soft shell crab with watermelon, feta, sunflower sprouts and Thai chili vin ($16) is listed as a main, but is light enough to make an excellent appetizer, possibly shared. It is one of three seaborne critters among the main course section of the menu. The other one that we tried was the Louisiana red snapper (with Savoy spinach and sauce grenobloise). Grenobloise is a smart sauce to serve with snapper since the acid in the lemon and capers brings out the flavor in the flesh of the fish. Dodds also pan-roasted into sharp relief the glorious texture in the skin for visual appeal.
With Dodds, salads are never the quick throw-together that we find so often elsewhere. Just the list of ingredients indicates that each salad is something special. We had a panzanella with toybox tomatoes, olives, radishes and Mozzarella Company goat whey. We also tried an Israeli Melon salad with purlane, shaved chorizo, manchego and quince.
Our meat main courses followed. First, a veal cheek Marsala served with green and purple noodle beans (from Windy Hill Organics) and porcini mushrooms was beautifully tender, probably as a result of the 10 hours of braising. Then we enjoyed an audacious goat tenderloin with piperade and shaved fennel salad. While Indian restaurants employ goat as a workhorse (or workgoat) ingredient, this is the first time that I have seen the tenderloin on the menu of a fine dining restaurant in town. Dodds even had the courage to serve it in the manner of a beef tenderloin, and so succulent and tender was the texture that he darn well got away with it. Finally, a wagyu bavette steak arrived with black truffle potato purée and porter tomatoes would stand up against the meat in any steak house in town.
Dessert featured peach empanadas and goat ricotta cheesecake made in-house. The cheesecake was a crustless and Spanish-styled. It is cooked at a higher temperature for a shorter amount of time. It soufflés up a little and is served at room temperature. The end result is a very light and fluffy cheesecake. It was served it with orange glaze (reduced orange juice and Grand Marnier) and some candied pine nuts for some crunch. These were a fitting end which, I must admit, we had to take home to enjoy on an emptier stomach.
Finally, something new in the small cheese course. Caprino Royale Blue Roan is a blue cheese named after a species of Nubian goat. They gave Dodds a small sample and he likes its creamy flavor. It is likely to be on the menu in the near future.
The menu at Central 214 reflects Graham Dodds’ continuing commitment to local ingredients, innovative recipes and sensitivity to the seasons. It also gives away some Spanish influences in his style. (Maybe more so in this menu than in the winter and spring menus that I reported on earlier.)
If Kimpton (Hotel Palomar’s operating company) would just get on with the last task on their Central 214 to-do list, bombing the depressing brutalist room it is housed in and replacing it with something as pure in design as the food on the plate, then this could become a leading area destination restaurant.