Central 214, the restaurant located at the chic Hotel Palomar in Dallas, recently hired a new chef, Graham Dodds -- its third since it opened in 2006. In some circumstances, that might be seen as a liability; but Central 214 has used its chef changes as an opportunity for reinvention. First came the understated competence of Tom Fleming. Blythe Beck ushered in the colorful era with her pink chef's togs and cable reality show Naughty Chef.
Dodds, who was formerly chef at Bolsa, is poster boy of the farm-to-table movement in Dallas-Fort Worth. He has his own beehives, and he has been a visible, dedicated champion of the "buy local" approach. His appointment reflects the chef-driven focus of Kimpton, the boutique-hotel chain to which the Palomar belongs.
His menu could not be more different than Beck's, a fried-food fiend known for her chicken-fried Kobe steak. Dodd is serving braised dishes, lentils and trendy greens like kale. He does vegetables with a "masculine" touch; for example, Brussels sprouts ($10) paired with manly pork belly. His presence at Central 214 still feels tentative, but there's something heroic about it, too -- like seeing your favorite indie band playing at an arena.
It's also a pleasure to be able to go to a fancy place like the Palomar and get something as offbeat as a goat burger ($19), with meat from Windy Hill Farms in Murphy. The 1/3-pound patty was a civilized size, not a gargantuan slab, with hand-formed irregular edges and a subtle crust. It was served on a large toasted bun with lettuce, tomato and red onion; go for an all-goat version by getting it topped with melted goat cheese.
Dodd digs goat; his signature dinner entree is goat brisket ($24) over white bean puree. The meat was roasted low for 14 hours, then pan-seared to order, to give it a crunchy crust; the white bean puree was as creamy as mashed potatoes. A slaw made of shredded cabbage and leafy sunflower sprouts added a third texture and a sharp pop from its sweet-and-tangy apple cider vinaigrette.
Entrees consisted of basics like New York strip ($30) or chicken breast ($22), paired with sides more intriguing than standard mashed potatoes, such as the spaghetti squash with carbonara sauce that accompanied the chicken. He always has a vegetarian dish, sometimes two, such as butternut squash Parmesan ($18).
The hard squash was sliced into half-inch-thick medallions, then coated in crumbs and fried. The slices were layered diagonally with soft white burrata cheese and drizzled with a thick sauce made from chunky fresh tomatoes. The squash discs seemed greasy, but you had to appreciate the innovation and effort.
Salads and starters were full of neat surprises, such as the Scotch egg ($5). A spicy crust made from ground sausage and bread crumbs enclosed a hard-cooked whole egg; sliced in half, it looked cool with rings of sausage, egg white and yolk. Pan-fried shishito peppers ($10) were an accurate-if-oily rendition of the Japanese dish, with long green peppers seared until their skins turned brown. It was fun to pick them up by their stems and bite off the pepper, but the oiliness overwhelmed the pepper's subtle flavor.
Shaved celery root salad ($8) incorporated a nifty assortment of ingredients: paper-thin sheets of celery root, matchsticks of honey crisp apple, toasty pine nuts and fresh celery leaves. But boy, was it overdressed; next time, I'll request "EZ on the dressing."
Breakfast and lunch menus possess their own magic, from foodie picks like crispy pig ears ($10) in a buttermilk dressing to the comforting grilled cheese sandwich ($12) with tomato soup (made with Italian San Marzano tomatoes, of course). Triple-cooked fries ($8) were big, thick wedges of potato with skins still on, served in a wee copper pot, with a bottle of malt vinegar on the side.
Desserts worth a spin included the light, crunchy, sugar-sprinkled churros ($8) or the Ugly Pug chocolate cake ($8), a fancy Ding-Dong with devil's food cake given a dose of beer from Fort Worth's Rahr & Sons Brewing Co., in a crisp chocolate coat.
The restaurant's cool, modern ambience echoes the decor of the Palomar, but that's about to change as a vast renovation of the restaurant is already under way. A new wall of taps will be built to get Central 214 up to speed on the craft-beer front, and the atmosphere will be transformed into something more funky and rustic -- to more fittingly match Dodds' cuisine.