Restaurant Reviews

Boutique Peasantry

hither the chef-driven restaurant, the stand-alone room blossoming from a former dry cleaner or sports bar or neighborhood pharmacy? It's a declining species, the small room crowded with tables and stone accents and a chef in pressed whites leaning at the edge of the open kitchen, wiping plates and arranging frill. Sometimes the chef steps away from the expedition deck and dispenses air kisses and guffaws, catching the taste of future catering gigs in the corners of his upturned grin. His seated court hails his culinary miracles and the edgy strokes of interior design genius bankrolled by a partner or two.

Now, everything interesting is attached to a hotel.

The names roll off thus: Social, Bice, Nobu, Craft and whatever ends up in the Joule and the towering Mandarin Oriental. Add to that the Fearing-Ritz hybrid. Ads for the Dean Fearing gig tout both his rock band rhythm and room service jig.

Makes you wonder if Kent Rathbun could successfully launch a personal statement in today's market. Was Danielle Custer of Laurel's atop the Sheraton tower years ahead of her time? Or was she just on the wrong floor?

If the secret to local chef success in this dining jungle—seemingly overgrowing with national nameplates and absentee celebrity toques—is the boutique hotel, then may they flourish with abandon, even if the rooms serve only as tryst studios and urban getaways for Allen settlers.

Tom Fleming has checked into a hotel. Sure, he came from another hotel—Old Hickory Steakhouse in the Gaylord—after threading his way from the Riviera through Lombardi Mare and Pappas Bros. Steakhouse and...wasn't there Romano crab ranch in there somewhere? Hotel Palomar Dallas is a luxury Kimpton ensemble, just like Hotel Lumen is and the Joule Urban Resort will be when it opens sometime before the first decade of the 21st century is rolled up. Fleming's menu is in Central 214, nestled in the Hotel Palomar near the complex's condos and penthouses and the mind-body spa called exhale, which could just as easily hawk Cuban robustos.

But Paul Draper designed it.

Fleming says he strives to merge the humble with the noble. "It's a little bit of peasant food," he says of his menu. "I don't want it to be too esoteric." There's a little bit of that in the Paul Draper décor too. Subtle '70s-tech touches with sharp edges blend with simple natural woods and concrete. Burnt orange, white and red give it flavor while a rotisserie-equipped open kitchen gives it substance. The bar is loaded with couches staged before a back bar ensemble of streaked backlit amber panels, kind of like a wood-grain stained glass. A fountain burbling in the hotel lobby is loaded with thousands of cranberries rolling and bobbing against blooms of water from the nozzle—the humble with the noble.

Diver scallops are this way too. They're paired with "humble little lentils," carrots, bits of tomato, chives and asparagus tips in a deep red wine and veal stock reduction bumped with Florida rock shrimp. Scallops are cleanly sweet with a perfectly seared veneer. Yet somehow this humble treatment is overly busy, clobbering the naturally buttery scallops.

Rock shrimp cocktail is exceptionally busy as well, but the impact is far different. Served on a plate, the cocktail of shrimp, lobster and crab is crowned with coils of thin fried potatoes while it rests in a creamy yellow smear of brandy tomato emulsion speckled with tiny bits of chive. It's a cool, well-assembled arrangement of flavors artfully leashed and harmonized without spilling over into distracting esoterica.

But perhaps Fleming's most notable accomplishment is his rescue of crab cakes from filler tyranny. It has almost become an insufferable cliché to note how chefs have shied away from diluting their crab (and food costs) with all manner of bread dust mashed with celery, carrot, onion and whatever is left on the cutting board that can be pulverized and concealed in filler. In the past it seemed the typical crab cake would find a more hospitable habitat inside of a turkey cavity than it would on a plate with a blot of rémoulade.

Fleming's cakes have filler, but here is the formula: quarter-cup of bread crumbs to five pounds of cleaned crab flesh. To that he adds a dressing composed of brandy, mayonnaise, roasted peppers and plenty of cayenne sting. They're seared until the cakes cough up a thick mahogany crust. They're loose and topped with fried potatoes. They rest on a bed of spinach specked with diced tomato in sharp vinaigrette. Lemon is there too, creating a stiff acid tension that dissipates in the cake depths.

Despite doing time at Lombardi Mare and the short-lived Lobster Ranch, Fleming has really cut his career swath through a side of beef. He peddles a variety of steaks here—hanger, bone-in strip and cowboy rib eye—all Premium Gold Angus. Fleming all but scoffs at prime and the ubiquitous Black Angus designations. Prime beef can be iffy, and the Black Angus program has been diluted almost beyond recognition, he insists. "As long as half the cow has black fur on it, that's certified Angus beef," Fleming says. "That's the parameters of the program."

Gold is where the flavor is, he says. It's organic and meticulously inspected from source-verified Black Angus stock. We sampled the hanger steak, a ribbon of meat said to dangle from the diaphragm of the steer but that is actually attached to the last rib and the kidney. The meat tends to be very tender and floods the palate with intense flavors. Therefore, the cut is most often marinated to blunt its intensity.

Fleming will have none of this. His hanger is treated with just salt and pepper before it is tossed onto the grill.

"What makes this great is that there's so much blood flowing through it, that it has that rich flavor to it," Fleming says. "And it's actually leaner than a filet mignon." But hanger must be ordered medium rare, as the flesh tends to toughen and dry out as the doneness level increases. At this hue, it's delicious. The grill crust is brittle, and the meat chewy, juicy and robust, with a slight gamy essence.

Oddly, there isn't a speck of game on Fleming's 214 menu. Fleming says he trial-ballooned quail with chanterelle mushroom grits, but it didn't go over. "Maybe it was the preparation. Maybe it was the description," he admits. The New Year will bring experimentations with venison and ostrich—welcome additions.

But such humbled noble dishes aren't the only 214 menu entrants. Central 214 offers a custard-like roasted butternut squash soup with ribbons of duck meat and an extraordinarily smooth and rich lobster bisque with twine-like knots of lobster meat bulging from the surface. The corned beef and Swiss sandwich is simple: fluffy sheets of rippled corned beef gooed together with cheese on steaming slices of rye with sharp caraway stings. Clean up with lemon cannoli: baked pastry tubes bleeding a sharp lemon cream from either end. The tubes crumble and flake like shattered blown glass when forked.

Central 214 is a simple restaurant that refuses to dazzle with earnest culinary flourishes or flowery personal chef statements. Instead, it nourishes with an understated elegance that never wears on the nerves, even if the humble might overrun the noble every now and again.

5300 E. Mockingbird Lane, 214-443-9339. Open for breakfast 7 a.m.-10:30 a.m. Monday-Friday. Open for brunch 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Open for lunch 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday. Open for dinner 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday, 5 p.m.-10:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. $$$

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz

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