by Andrew Chalk
Central 214, the aspirational New American farm-to-table restaurant at the Hotel Palomar, has just introduced execuchef Graham Dodds’ summer menu. The changes are far-reaching, introducing salads that glorify the vegetables and fruit of summer, beef ribs that put those expensive (if you count queuing time) central Texas barbecue places to shame, and juicy brined Berkshire pork chop that has rich flavors that shows off the restaurant’s careful sourcing policy.
I have said in the past that the local sourcing policy as Central 214 stopped at the edge of the plate. I described the wine list as a hit parade of the bottom 40 from California and of national corporate dominance. Scratch that. The list has undergone a total cellardectomy and now features at least six Texas wines (more details below) and a 360⁰ vision about origin. Add to that a comprehensive cocktail list by mixologist Amber West and Central 214 continues its march to the forefront of Dallas restaurants.
I was a guest at a recent media event. The chef chose our menu so it was inevitably a selection of greatest hits. No problem there, as you will discover them now.
We started with a selection of salads. Dodds has always been creative in this area so he has built himself a rod for his own back, so to speak, in trying to outdo the previous year each new season. This year the Crenshaw Melon Salad is very impressive. It marries slices of the aforesaid melon with similarly sized pieces of manchego cheese and slices of spanish chorizo, all bathed in olive oil and topped with the tart tang of whole leaves of purslane. Purslane is described by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture as ‘a noxious weed’ and translates in Malawi to ‘the buttocks of the wife of a chief’, both of which I take as strong recommendations. Dodds is content for it to add its peppery robe atop the other flavors at work in this refined and subtle salad.
I once suggested that serious criminals who got off with just community service should be required to cut the grass at the arboretum with nothing more than a pair of scissors. Management at Hotel Palomar take a similar view of Dodd’s production of flatbread. All four on the menu are made without the aid of a pizza oven although you would never guess it. The crust is brightly crisp, the burn marks present in just enough quantity and severity to add color and umami for the senses. The Jimmy’s sausage and banana pepper variation has enough heat to stop the central nervous system, but that is why God invented beer. Although not as novel as they once were, flatbread are kept by public demand and these are as good as the genre gets.
Call NetJets and cancel that early morning charter to line up at Franklin’s Barbecue. Central 214’s Marbleus Beef Ribs are moist, tasty, and edged with a crust of crackling beef fibres. People don’t think of a boutique hotel restaurant as the place to find great barbecue but the facts may change that. The sides are not an afterthought either: fried okra is herbal and sweet without being the remotest bit slimy. The toybox tomatoes are piquantly acid and the pinto beans (served in a cute individual cast iron urn on the side) earthy and umami-rich. Dodds braises them in chicken stock with fennel, onions, bay leaves, etc. Then he cooks down the braising liquid and glazes the beans with it.
My personal ‘best of the night’ award goes to the Berkshire Pork Chop. It is not just the two days of brining that it faces that makes this meat (that is so prone to dryness) succulently juicy, it is the tastiness of the flesh itself. Mass produced pork may be low in calories but it is often characterless as well. Dodds buys his pork from Eden Farms (a coop out of Iowa) where the concepts of mass production have never entered the lexicon (some of the pigs are fed on acorns). This is what pork really tastes like.
The cream cheese grits (that’s ‘powlenta’ if you are from Florence) that form a base for the chops are intoxicatingly earthy, sweet and creamy. Maybe the best grits I have had. The fig preserves arranged on top of the meat are a clever hommage to the practise of serving pork accompanied by fruit flavors.
With our ambulance waiting outside we only had time for three desserts. Do try them all. The Green Tomato Pie was a new one on me. It’s a keeper/repeater.
The Buttermilk Panna Cotta is, in a way, the reverse of the first dessert. Rather than being an unusual combination of familiar ingredients it is a familiar combination of unusual ingredients. The ‘unusual’ here is rhubarb, a tart vegetable, served as a stalk, that compliments the sweetness of the panna cotta. Good combination.
Finally, Martha’s New York Style Cheesecake with meringue and dewberries edged in a graham (Dodds?) cracker crust was the usual sweet finisher. The desserts are made by Martha Nichol who has been with Dodds since he was execuchef at Bolsa.
Not only is the food at Central 214 some of the best in the city, but the wine list has improved considerably too. We were treated to almost exclusively Texas wines and they acquitted themselves well. 2010 Duchman Vermentino and 2010 McPherson Viognier with the salad. 2009 McPherson Sangiovese with the pork chop. We did not get to try the 2010 Duchman Aglianico that is on the wine list but I have had that wine and it would be a great accompaniment to those earthy beef ribs. The highly rated 2010 Brennan Viognier is also on the list.
Our dessert wine was an intriguing late harvest example from north east Italy. The 2006 La Roncaia, Ramandolo DOCG, Friuli Venezia Giulia is an intense mouthful of dried apricots that, while sweet, is never cloying. It was especially good with the green tomato pie. This impressive wine is made from the Verduzzo grape, about which I knew nothing before I tried this example. I put it down as a ‘find’.
Finally, in a meal characterised by superior food, enjoyable wine, and well-meaning service, there was still the spectre of the one giant negative to dining at Central 214. The room. The architecture might be described as Brutalism at its sensual worst. It is like eating in the departure lounge of an airport in one of those former Soviet colonies ending in ‘stan’. “Let’s see dear, is this Kazachstan or Tajikistan? No, it’s Friday, we must be at Palomarstan”. Responsibility for this cause of under-performance in the restaurant footfall lies firmly with the owners of the building. It must make financial sense to remodel (Kitchen LTO is going to do it on a $30,000 budget every four months for heaven’s sake) and they should start on it now. Once that is done, market the place as a destination restaurant as firmly as is Rosewood’s Mansion on Turtle Creek. The other pieces are already in place.