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?

Idaho rainbow trout is also superb, grilled over mesquite and topped with brown butter and almonds. I'd like to invite the chef along on my next fishing trip. I'd also tell him to bring along his sides of wasabi-spiked mashed potatoes, rosemary red potatoes, rice pilaf and buttered veggies.

He handles a couple of other fish species competently, if not spectacularly. Nobody ever ate mild, firm-fleshed orange roughy until the 1980s, when a marketer got the brilliant idea to change the name of this bony South Pacific creature from "slimehead." What's in a name? Plenty. A rose may be a rose, but no one wanted to eat slimehead. Diners took to the new name so enthusiastically that New Zealand had to put limits on the catch. Naturally, prices shot up. Central Bistro's $14.95 tag is quite reasonable, especially when you factor in the light, panko-style breading and deft pan-frying. Moist mahi mahi, meanwhile, is also done right, touched up with an undemanding, sweet orange-ginger glaze.

Unfortunately, the chef doesn't handle yellowfin tuna with the same skill as the orange roughy and mahimahi. It came overcooked and dried out, and the overpowering lime cilantro wasabi also didn't do it any favors.

The biggest disappointment? It's no contest -- the one-and-three-quarter pound lobster thermidor, another "house specialty." I suppose my alarm bells should have gone off when our server told us it was one evening's special, the regular price of $37.95 reduced a whopping 15 bucks to $22.95. Instead, I learned a hard lesson: If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

This was one tough crustacean, the meat neither sweet nor succulent. Even a great béchamel sauce couldn't have helped, and, believe me, this one was nowhere near great, or even good. If Central Bistro is going to keep this high-priced dish on the menu, it had better ratchet up the quality several notches.

Pedro's Favorite Pasta also misses the mark. There's a thin line between creative and weird, and this odd mix of shrimp, mango, green pepper and macadamia nuts jumped right over it.

Landlubber dishes include the usual suspects: chicken, pork chop, steak and prime rib. If the ineffectual prime rib is any indication, red meat here seems to be merely an afterthought.

Desserts, however, aren't. They're luscious. I was told they're supplied by a woman who makes them special for Central Bistro. This talented gal should consider getting out of the contracting business and opening up her own retail shop.

Every dessert started a frenzy of dueling forks and spoons at my table. Tres leches featured three moist, creamy cake layers, each with its own distinct taste and texture, separated by an apricot filling. Just thinking about the crisp, chocolate-coated florentine cookie, topped with ice cream, strawberries and cream, made the hour I had to spend on the exercise cycle sweating off its calories bearable.

Flan is achingly, artery-cloggingly rich, and that's just the way I like it. Fat-gram counters shouldn't get anywhere near the Oreo cheesecake. Heavy, intense, creamy and cheesy, it sends you home on a high. And so does the sublime almond chocolate mousse cake, a confection that relies on rich flavors, not a bucket of sugar, to make its point.

At this point, Central Bistro seems to occupy a dead-end restaurant niche. On the one hand, most of the fare isn't interesting enough or special enough to attract the free-spending, good-time bistro crowd. On the other hand, I can't see casual diners flocking here for the $15 orange roughy or $20 seafood paella. The moribund setting, meanwhile, is a universal turnoff. Management needs to do serious rethinking, redesigning and retooling. Back to the drawing boards.

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