I don’t know about you, but every time I go out to eat, I say a little prayer to the kitchen gods: “Oh please, oh please, oh please, let there be something fabulous on the menu tonight.” Usually, however, the kitchen gods are out having a smoke in the alley and in no mood to grant my wish. But this time I lucked out. How so? I’ve got four words for you: Central 214’s crab cakes.
Emerging from the shiny open kitchen of the chic restaurant in Dallas’s new Hotel Palomar, these crab cakes are beyond great. They put the “lump” in lump crab; in fact, they don’t even look like your typical crab cakes, i.e., brown hockey pucks. They look like a mound of freshwater pearls and are so fresh and fine you can almost feel a sea breeze. A nice salad of wilted arugula, a tart tomato relish, and a small haystack of impossibly thin fries come alongside, but it’s hard to concentrate on anything but those crab cakes.
All right, enough about that. Let me tell you about the other things I tried at Central 214 (the name, by the way, plays off of Central Expressway, where the restaurant is located, and 214, Dallas’s primary area code). Nearly as good were the diver scallops with a smoky ragoût of green lentils, served in a savory red-wine jus tossed with small, tender rock shrimp. The combination was lovely, and unconventional—a meaty-flavored sauce and a wintry legume with a white-fleshed shellfish. It all worked so beautifully that I hardly noticed that the lentils were a bit too al dente.
What else on the menu made me happy? The oysters Rockefeller, reinvented for the spinach-scare era, proved that necessity can be a kind taskmaster. This version came with nibbles of bacon scattered in with the four mollusks, plus a tiny, well-dressed salad of chicory teetering on top of each one. The quartet was arrayed on a sleek rectangular platter filled with rock salt—very pretty. Another smile-inducing dish was the fine and more than generous pork loin crusted with bread crumbs and an artichoke purée. Oh, and then there was a bountiful grilled heart of romaine salad, charred on the outside but crisp and green on the inside. A small slab of feta cheese came with the salad, the better to mop up the pungent vinaigrette.
Executive chef Tom Fleming, whose ideas these are, is the man with the shaved head working the line at dinner, flipping the contents of a sauté pan while flames leap two feet in the air. Maybe that’s why things are on target at Central 214: The boss is around. In fact, the worst I could say about any of the dishes I ate was that they were merely good (well, one or two were awfully salty).
Aside from being smitten with much of the food, I’m taken with the look of the dining room: the clean lines, the sleek but warm black and white tones, the twinkly modern light fixtures, the amazing decorative back bar (it looks like onyx but is actually wood—spalted maple, to be precise). Other people are apparently impressed too. Even though the restaurant was only a week or so old when I visited, it was almost full by eight o’clock. Which reminds me: I had better make reservations for next time and tell them to save me some crab cakes. It’s never a good idea to leave important things up to the kitchen gods.
Crab Cakes from Central 214