Central Miscasting

Central Bistro, 5202 North Central, Phoenix, 602-234-2768. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday, 2 to 11 p.m. Closed Sunday.

Real estate experts know that certain businesses and certain locations don't mesh. You shouldn't put a fine chinaware shop directly along the San Andreas fault. You're inviting Chapter 11 if you run a hot dog stand at Fisherman's Wharf. I wouldn't operate a kennel in a Vietnamese neighborhood, open a Yugo dealership in Paradise Valley or sell skateboards in Sun City.

And I don't think I'd try to install a restaurant along the stretch of Central just north of Camelback.

I'd especially steer clear of the building at 5202 North Central. Over the past decade, it's housed a trio of restaurants. The scorecard -- three concepts, three failures: a breakfast place, an overly ambitious culinary venture (remember Lathrops on Central?) and, most recently, a Western steak house.

For the past few years, the vacant building has looked like a mausoleum, gathering dust and cobwebs. Several months ago, however, it came back to life. Who's tempting fate now? It's the same restaurant group that operates two popular Valley tourist hangouts, Pinnacle Peak Patio and T-Bone Steak House.

Back in 1995, the company thought this Central Avenue spot would make a fine second branch for T-Bone Steak House. It was a major miscalculation. This time around, executives had the smarts to realize it probably wouldn't work as a Pinnacle Peak Patio unit, either. So they put their heads together and came up with Central Bistro, a place for "Seafood, Steaks, Spirits."

More thought has gone into the concept than into the interior design. But that's because no thought seems to have gone into the design. The place looks almost exactly as it did in its three previous incarnations. And that's a problem.

T-Bone Steak House's animal heads and wagon wheels have come down, replaced by a few nondescript framed pictures. But no matter what's hanging on the walls, Central Bistro resembles a sleepy coffee shop or diner more than it does an energetic bistro.

Blame the awful layout: Instead of a bustling, see-and-be-seen main dining area, the room features two very long rows of booths and tables, separated by a bar running the length of the restaurant's spine. Central Bistro is a bit like Gertrude Stein's Oakland: There's no "there" there. Wherever you sit, you'll feel vaguely isolated and depressed. The open kitchen in the back could have helped. But since you can't see it from anywhere, it might as well be underground.

The design misstep is unfortunate, because the building itself is good-looking. In these circumstances, however, the clerestory windows and vaulted ceiling crossed with beams make little impact.

The piped-in music is another downer. From primal blues to thumpa-thumpa rock, it's loud, annoying and inappropriate.

Central Bistro brought in a chef from The Fish Market to head the kitchen, so it's not altogether surprising that the menu emphasizes seafood. And since that's his priority, I made it mine, as well.

It's clear that the breadbasket isn't high priority. It holds a warmed-up sourdough loaf of no particular quality. I think diners have come to expect something better in the way of bread these days. I certainly do.

The appetizers are seafood-themed, and they're hit-or-miss. Among the hits are the calamari: battered, fresh-fried and tender. Their spunky ancho chile dipping sauce is another plus. Mussels are wonderful, too, a half-dozen bivalves on the shell, topped with a bit of crab and mushroom, then baked. And I couldn't find any shortcomings in the quesadilla, a large spinach tortilla plumped up with fat bits of shrimp, mango, peppers and cheese, teamed with a pungent tomatillo sauce.

But sometimes the chef doesn't seem to be trying very hard. Every restaurant in town has seared strips of ahi tuna on its appetizer list. Diners who order it aren't searching for novelty, they're looking for quality. The tuna here, though, falls short, arriving overcooked, without the sensual buttery texture the best models have.

Roasted garlic prawns also don't measure up. The kitchen sends out five for $10.95, not much of a bargain. My mood didn't brighten after I took a few bites -- these shrimp somehow managed to be both chewy and flabby at the same time. And the chef threw on garlic with such reckless abandon that the white wine, brandy and lemon butter accents got completely lost.

What fried pot stickers are doing among the starters is one of those unsolved mysteries that Robert Stack should look into. They're completely undistinguished. Who comes here to eat pot stickers, anyway?

The chef is no more consistent with the main dishes than he is with the appetizers. Occasionally, when he's on, you can get pumped up with pleasure. When he's not, you'll just shrug.

Two entrees stand out. Seafood paella is a "house specialty," and the designation is well-deserved. Don't expect anything remotely similar to the famous Spanish rice dish -- this paella is actually a seafood stew. But I was too busy enjoying myself to suffer from a hardening of the categories. The kitchen sends out a heap of crab, shrimp, scallops, mussels, calamari and fish, tossed in a terrific thick, spicy tomato sauce that almost tempted me to lift my plate and lick it clean. My only complaint: the bed of undercooked rice. Isn't anybody in the kitchen checking this very basic detail?

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