Heavy Cooking Isn't the Only Way to Embrace Local Meat. Though It's a Pretty Tasty Way.
For some time, Central 214 was known as the restaurant led by Blythe Beck, the chef with the big personality who made her dishes "naughty." Beck plated chicken-fried Kobe steak, whipped potatoes weeping butterfat and cream-laden gravy served not in some country kitchen, but in an opulent hotel dining room. Think of her as a sort of urbane Paula Deen.
Now Graham Dodds mans the pass, inspecting plates before they head out to diners, who mostly eat meals in tandem with a stay at the Palomar Hotel (though some locals come to check in on their favorite chef). Dodds came from a completely different school of cuisine. He honed his chops in the Bolsa model, an Oak Cliff auto shop turned chef-driven restaurant embracing local ingredients grown and raised on small farms.
While other chefs like Randall Copeland and Jake Deput helped to get Bolsa off the ground, Dodds ran the show for the next three years. Shortly after Bolsa opened in 2008, The Dallas Morning News added it to the newspaper's best new restaurants list. In 2009 D magazine proclaimed Bolsa restaurant of the year. GQ called Dodds' the best egg sandwich in Texas and praised lamb shanks braised in Shiner Bock.
But the best endorsement likely came from his peers. Many Dallas chefs listed Bolsa as a solid place to eat, and a few called Bolsa their favorite. Dodds' reputation grew as he topped his burgers in pork belly and dressed locally grown arugula for his salads.
Then last fall, the owners of Bolsa announced a new direction for the restaurant. Dodds was leaving, to be replaced by Jeff Harris and Matt Balke, two chefs who cooked with a similar style. Harris was raised in the Craft paradigm known for simple cooking containing the finest local ingredients, and Balke came out of the recently closed York Street studying under the tutelage of Sharon Hage, a pioneer in Dallas' locavore scene.
Dodds won't comment on the split, but he says it was for the better. Maybe things got stagnant. Maybe he got bored. Maybe he didn't like his owners or the direction they were going with Bolsa Mercado, the supporting market just down the street, where Harris and Balke now make pastrami. Whatever the reason he left, Dodds says he's happier now. But it seems that he's turned over more than just a new menu with his move to Central 214. He has a new fiancée. A baby whose age is measured in days. Shit's looking up. And all of this is a backdrop to a quiet weekday dinner at Central 214's bar.
"What's looking good?" I asked the bartender working that evening. "The steak is awesome," he said, pointing to the most expensive item on the menu. I'm not the only one tired of the cliché. This guy is just trying to grease his own tip, right? So I asked him why, and I think caught him a little off guard.
"Well it's got bone marrow on it," he added after a pause, which to be honest sounded terrible. I pictured a blackened New York strip topped with jiggling roasted bone Jell-O. Surely that would look gross, and the whole thing sounded over the top. But that's not what you get when you order a New York strip at Central 214, and the bartender's short description did the dish a disservice.
I'll tell you how to sell that steak. Tell diners that Dodds procures beef naturally raised in Texas with the same care he puts into all his ingredients. Tell them he sears the meat to order, not quite with steakhouse precision, but close enough for most. Tell diners it comes slathered end to end in a beautiful compound butter, tricked out with herbs, soft garlic and bone marrow.
Don't mention that it's heavy as hell, or that the clear fat pools on the plate and inundates the supporting greens in a thick oily sheen. Don't tell your customers that while they indulge their gluttony, their consciences will whisper, "man this really isn't good for me." No, just focus on that meat, clad in what quickly melts down into a thin, silky veneer of bone marrow essence — a New York strip draped in lingerie.
Fat is the easiest path to sex appeal, and Dodds leans on the vice heavily.
A house-made blood sausage the texture of custard is stuffed into tender, thick pasta that swims in a buttery herb sauce. The sausage pays homage to Dodds' Scottish mother and an English father, and it's not the only nod to across the pond. Dodds has a Scotch egg on his menu as well.
I don't know who first thought to hard boil and peel an egg, then wrap it in sausage, bread it and deep fry it, but I'm glad they did. The process essentially replaces a delicate white eggshell with a brash casing of pork fat and crunch. It's ridiculous. And it's good. Dodds uses a coarsely ground sausage that's full of flavor and achieves an outer casing so crunchy it would make the best falafel in the world jealous.
There's lamb's breast and beef short ribs and thin crispy ribbons of pig ears. The ears get a boring ranch dipper, though a squeeze of lime and some chili slivers would support them much better.
There's an oxtail ragout, served over not gnocchi as the menu says, but dumplings of pâte à choux. (Don't worry, I didn't mind and you likely won't either.) The kitchen crisps them in a saute pan with pesto before spooning them into a rich, hearty oxtail stew. Are you seeing a pattern here?
Sure, there's a lovely kale salad and crisp but over-dressed greens. And the bar menu offers blistered shishito peppers dressed in Meyer lemon that are light and perfectly crave-worthy. Fish is represented too, but the dishes seem a little lost in a menu that reads like a butcher case. It's not all red meat — just a lot of it. And the dishes that feature animal protein hit the fat really hard.
Things are changing, though, and will likely continue to do so. Spring is coming, and with it earthy morel mushrooms, sweet spring peas and tender stalks of asparagus. Summer will follow — a season to cast off heavy braises and meaty sauce reductions in favor of lighter cooking that shines like the sun.
Central 214 is getting an updated dining room too, this summer if things go according to plans. Dodds told me the refreshed space will feel a little more relaxed and a little less like a sleek hotel, a tone that would suit his homey and heavy menu.
Dodds has done an exceptional job embracing local purveyors, a trend that started with Alice Waters decades ago. Now he needs to hone the more delicate side of his cooking. If he does, he'd be taking up a trend that's surely coming (he could even be ahead of the curve) and Central 214's praise would eclipse that of his predecessor Bolsa — or at least be as loud.
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