Naughty is nice at Central 214
Chef Blythe Beck likes things naughty—in the kitchen, on the plate, even at home, the tawdry cook can never say no when there's some oil and a fine piece of meat. She's even made naughtiness the heart of a new cooking series currently being videotaped at her restaurant.
Now, let's be clear about this: When Central 214's new chef says "naughty," she isn't promising scantily clad handmaids slinking up to your table winking "coffee, tea or me." No, she means filling dishes that rely on heavy ingredients, the sort of foods considered staples before the advent of California cuisine and other pernicious forms of health consciousness, before words like "wellness" crept into our culinary vernacular. Beck fries what seems like half the items on her menu, smashes together heaping mounds of pimento cheese and creates sauces that will turn you into a real-life Weeble, if and when you rise from the chair. "Cream, butter, beer, bacon fat—that makes it naughty," she explains. "You wouldn't want me to wimp out and use milk."
Hard to imagine, given such dishes as chicken-fried Kobe steak, a slab of richly marbled tenderloin pounded as flat as prudence allows, dipped in buttermilk—the whole bit. This is plated beside whipped potatoes, impeccably smooth and seeping butterfat; also country-style mustard greens, balancing the natural bitter tang with a leavening of bacon. Just like my hardly at all naughty mom used to make, in fact. Beck's version of red eye gravy, pooled across and around the schnitzel, consists largely of (you guessed it) cream.
There's a both a craftiness and sense of righteousness to this show of rebellion. Instead of enjoying buoyant, full-flavored things as people did in history's flush times (and not so flush, as well: even Laura Ingalls Wilder's girlhood family reserved cream for the children), many Americans subject themselves to dietary restrictions. They drink 1 percent milk and pretend it has some character. They gingerly ease lean meat onto a George Foreman grill and act as if the result is fulfilling. They deprive themselves of hearty pleasures, drawn instead to "heart-healthy" Mediterranean fare.
Beck's menu aims to reverse this trend by putting fat back into the spotlight—what she refers to as her "quest for world culinary domination."
Keep in mind that the chef enjoys spewing enigmatic phrases at rapid-fire pace. The naughty kitchen is one such, world culinary domination another, with neither meant to be taken literally. Besides, there's no way her CFKS (the K stands for Kobe) could wrest control of the Eastern United States, let alone Kamchatka, Siam or Madagascar.
Oh, it's comfortable and tender, all right. The batter fries up clean and crisp, to the point where it tends to shatter under pressure from a knife and fork. Kobe beef punished in such a manner, however, takes on a pinkish-gray pale, almost sickly to look at under an appealing, golden crust. If anything, that cut of expensive red meat resembles a slab of veal or, worse, boiled beef—and tastes much the same, gentle to the point of being timid. Ultimately, it feels like handing over your 1970 Hemi 'Cuda so an aged great aunt can make it to her afternoon scrap-booking session at the community center. It's a complete misallocation of resources.
The spicy fried lobster gives a similar impression. Again, the sauce promises something spectacular, rich in cream, coconut and the sting of alcohol—fatty and sweet, mellow and harsh in the same moment. Wrapped in another example of the chef's wonderfully brittle, apparently greaseless crust, the shellfish settles into a bench-warming role, off the field of play. That sensation of velour and sable, Prada and Mercedes, things cushy and exclusive you experience biting into lobster, well, it's not there. Beck could roll grocery-store chicken in the same perfect batter and—apart from the obvious texture—guests would be none the wiser.
Yet a starter plate of oysters, also given the chicken-fried treatment, reveals tinny, mineral and musty notes under a shell seasoned with such dexterity that peppery forces sweep in to challenge the first touch of starchy sweetness. These are as subtle and satisfying as fried oysters can be.
The menu also includes fried cheese, fried...everything. "You're not going to eat like this everyday," the chef says of this aspect of Central 214's menu. "But when you eat here, make sure you wear your stretchy pants."
Yes, that probably means the dress code allows for Sansabelt slacks—although for the moment, Beck's dining room is split between the camera-shy casual and the "look-at-me" poseurs. The latter tend to congregate on the patio and its spillover areas, or wherever Oxygen network's camera crew chances to prowl. Those of us huddling in the less populated spaces beyond the lens have a chance to speak with the squad of servers apparently assigned to each table. As many as three different faces checked up on my piece of dining space each visit, one of them a nice woman of cheery-sad features and a passion for reciting poetry.
Don't remember how it came up, but she launched into a bit of Emily Dickinson drivel before I shut her down with some Wilfred Owen.
I mean, "If in some smothering dreams you too could pace/Behind the wagon that we flung him in/And watch the white eyes writhing in his face/His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin/If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood...'" C'mon. Dickinson just wrote pleasant stuff about yard snakes and carriage rides with hooded scythemen.
Speaking of devils, Beck stoops to offer deviled eggs on an upscale restaurant menu. I'm not sure why more restaurants don't do this because this family reunion highlight can be made well in advance and trotted out to guests without frantic, last second boiling, chopping and food processing. These she spikes with bits of shrimp, but the results can be disappointing as the filling often comes out dry and crumbly. Bread service arrives with a trio of options, including the aforementioned pimento cheese and a pile of smoked trout, shredded, salty and also sometimes far too dry.
Salt invades the grilled duck breast—yes, grilled—as well. My first few bites reeked of salt embedded into the fatty layer of skin, although the final three pieces showed a nice balance of flavors, meaning the line cook responsible dumped most of that oversized pinch of salt on the front half. At least the meat is tender, if rather mild in flavor.
Perhaps the one near flawless dish I tried during my visits was a soup. Pureed until silky smooth, the crab corn bisque is rich (guess why) and flush with the essence of fresh corn. Although sparsely arranged, pieces of crab meat fold into this sweet, fat and starchy presentation rather nicely. It's also one of the chef's few nods to upscale dining on an impish menu.
As Beck explains, the restaurant is built around familiar foods—"but I make it naughty," she adds.
Nothing wrong going against the grain, so long as it works. But chicken-fried this, naughty that, chicken-fried here, naughty there—isn't it all a bit much? No chance, the chef says.
"People can mock me, but that's who I am."
Central 214 5680 N. Central Expressway, 214-443-9339. Open 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m., 5-10 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m., 5-10:30 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 5-10:30 p.m. Saturday, 5-10 p.m. Sunday. Brunch 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday- Sunday. $$$
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