If anyone tells you that Kimpton hotels decrees a corporate style to the food in its restaurants, tell them to compare the styles at Central 214 under former execuchef, Blythe Beck and the recently appointed execuchef Graham Dodds. They couldn’t be more different. And not just in the amount of pink they wear. Dodds’ new menu transplants the philosophy which put Bolsa on the map back in 2008. (D was so taken with the place that we named it new restaurant of the year). As hotel execuchef, Dodds ovesees the food for room service, hotel events, and the bar menu. Lucky out-of-town guests who think Dallas is just chain restaurants and steakhouses will savor the food created by one of chefs at the forefront of the farm-to-table movement in the area. At a media event this week, I was fortunate to be served a cavalcade of dishes available from the menu and selected by the chef.
Jump for the glory of food.
First up was popcorn sweetbreads with lime zest and butter ($14). It is the kind of dish that PR peeps describe as “playful,” but the soft chewy bite size thymus pieces were just the thing to sate the inner organ craving in winter. You mop them in the melted butter to get the full sensory experience.
There was a former Dallas food critic, it may have been the late Dave Faries, or the later Bill Addison, I forget in the mists of time. But one of these guys regaled that there were no good fries to be had in this town. So cogent was the grain of truth in this claim that few took up the cudgels to contest it. Now they can. Dodds triple cooked fries (on the bar menu, but available in the dining room for $8) with optional malt vinegar are simply a signature creation. The color of the russets is a homely brown. The outside is crisp with a snap and the inside is as soft as a creamed potato emulsion. When you delve into the preparation process, it becomes less of a miracle, and more part of the realm of scientifically explicable phenomena. He spends five hours making them! This is a man who must worship S. tuberosum with the fanaticism with which a sushi master worships his fish.
With the sweet earthiness of potato still in our mouths, we moved on to pan-fried shishito peppers, toasted garlic and meyer lemon ($10). These reminded me of the ones I sampled at Asador. They are similarly prepared (fried and sprinkled with sea salt). In fact Dodds and the underrated Asador chef David Trubenbach are culinary fellow travelers in a lot of things they cook.
I will take the next three dishes together because they exemplify another Dodds strong point: salads. There are five on the menu and the three we tried were all original, addictive, and frankly healthy. The pictures tell the story pretty well but shaved celery root, honey crisp apple and pine nuts ($8) had celery root shaved so thin the slices were translucent. They used to do this with a mandolin, but when nobody in the kitchen had any fingers left they switched to an electric slicer. Savor the dressing if you order this dish. As well as the apple cider vinegar it contains the flavor of the pine nuts, lightly roasted to concentrate flavor. Brussels sprout leaves, amaranth, and pork belly ($10) is a light and quite pretty mixture of the vegetarian parts from where the almighty bully, pork belly, emerges from underneath and takes over the taste buds. Dodds confits the pork belly in olive oil and cuts it into small pieces, then crisps it up in the pan to order. He tosses the Brussels sprout leaves in the hot fat for a couple seconds and adds a dash of sherry vinegar. Finally, dinosaur kale, ricotta salata and raw artichoke ($9) is the most photogenic dish on the menu and a true harmony of flavors.
One of the most exciting things about the farm-to-table trend from my perspective is the march it takes us on towards nose-to-tale eating. I already mentioned the sweetbreads but blood sausage ravioli, roast baby carrots and beurre fondue ($20) is blood sausage for those squeamish about the idea of blood. And it actually uses the word in the menu! When was the last time a menu mentioned the nitrites you consume every week? Seriously, this dish will please your inner Italian and could be just as at home on the menu at Nonna or Lucia.
Moving right down the organs, to the tail next, with oxtail ragout, crispy gnocchi and basil pesto ($23). The intense oxtail stew saturated the gnocchi which acted like gravy sponges. If, like me, you have generally eaten your gnocchi topped with a sauce too dense to infuse them, then this dish will be a new and welcome experience.
The lamb breast with smoked paprika-honey glaze and crushed cannellini beans ($25) is braised in Riesling and chicken stock with aromatics. It is then glazed with a mixture of smoked paprika, coriander, cumin, lemon zest, honey and olive oil. Little wonder that it just disintegrated in long sinews under pressure from the fork.
Fish lovers will not be disappointed with the striped bass, black lentils, watercress, and goat yogurt ($25). The pan-fried fish was perfectly cooked has a soft flaky texture and a crisp and toasty skin. I was glad to see lentils make their way out of their usual Indian cuisine confines and Dodds remarked that he especially likes them with fish.
We had a selection of desserts. The housemade churros ($8) are smaller bite size pieces than the ones at Komali, but just as sweet. One final signature dish was still to come: poudin chomeur with maple cream ($8) is a cardiologist’s pension plan. It reminded me of treacle pudding with its intense sweetness, cake-like texture and hints of burned sugar. Absolute bliss.
His new responsibilities mean that Dodds will not be changing the menu daily as he did at Bolsa, but he will be changing it quarterly with the seasons. At the bottom of the menu is a long list of local suppliers featuring many familiar names. Helping in the kitchen are executive sous Jake Depaw, and sous Simon Holguin and Erik Wolf.
The wine and cocktail list has not changed with the chef but hopefully Kimpton will be as flexible on this as they were giving Dodds total freedom with the menu. I want to see the cocktails localized as much as the food (e.g. chilies, Texas spirits, cactus liqueurs, etc) and the wine list (apparently helicoptered in from HQ in San Francisco) needs some Texas wines. Right now, the by-the-glass selection is commendably large, but the emphasis on California on the list is too heavy.
So far it has gone unnoticed, but Central 214 has just become one of the best hotel restaurants in the city. There was a time when Dodds’ style, so at home in Bohemian Bolsa, would have been out of place in the formal surroundings of the Hotel Palomar. No more. In fact, his style of food makes the setting less intimidating. The farm to table movement has inculcated itself into upscale hotels like The Renaissance (Asador), Hotel Zaza (Dragonfly), and elsewhere. Graham Dodds does it as well as anybody in town.