When tiny Central first opened a little over a year ago, it was planned as something of a craft-cocktail hipster speakeasy, unmarked and secreted away in a narrow back alley of otherwise chaotically drunken, frat-heavy Old Town. The crepes served out of the sidewalk window—an upmarket clone of owner Dustin Knox's Perierra Crêperie cart on Southeast 12th and Hawthorne—provided frontage for the dim, windmill-fanned and taxidermy-bedecked parlor bar lurking behind a short hallway and black curtains.
Central has since opened out in more ways than one. The curtains are sidelined, there's outdoor seating on a newly closed section of Ankeny Street and the crepes have been scotched in favor of a diverse small-plates menu by talented former Fenouil chef Jake Martin.
Martin's kitchen debuted this July with a nearly flawless summer menu, with hot and cold plates ranging from an equal-weighted pairing of decadent lobster and even more decadent gnocchi to a tweaked variation of a caprese salad with anchovies acting as sly, bitter-salty counterweight to the fresh heirloom tomatoes, basil and Manchego cheese.
The autumn menu, which arrived mid-October, retains almost nothing from its predecessor except its guiding philosophy: forging unlikely harmony from simple elements, with esoteric accents to the otherwise familiar. Really, it's as if Martin—much like a Thai chef—is trying to touch each quadrant of your tongue with every dish.
So savory, salty Dungeness crab ($10) is tarted up with pomegranate, sweetened by vanilla, peppered by mustardy mizuna leaf. An achingly tender rabbit ($13) is spiced with kale, bittersweetened by candied garlic. The standout tuna crudo ($10), one of the few holdovers from summer, is accented through subtle aromatics in the manner of a good gin: subtly touched by miso, shiso, radish and cucumber. Generally, this all works wonderfully: The ingredients themselves have become spices, while the spices are left refreshingly Spartan. Or, if you prefer, it's food as cocktail, which in a cocktail bar is appropriate enough.
An endive and pickled blueberry "bite" ($4), nonetheless, was refined almost out of existence. The pickling serves to dim—almost, indeed, to sublimate—the blueberry's signature flavor, so that eating it is almost like inhaling perfume. (Although, who knows, maybe that's your thing.) A petite pasta with pancetta, chili and poached duck egg ($12)—sort of a rich man's carbonara—is also overpowered a bit by the curing of the meat. These are, however, small complaints. Note, too, that "small plates" is a very accurate description: Four dishes shared by two will gently sate, but not fill.
The cocktails—headed up by bar manager Daniel Osborne—are already much vaunted, and the shelves and menu run deep. Nothing pretends to come cheap (drinks range from $8 to $13), but this is because the ingredients come straight out of an overhead-be-damned fantasy dreambook, obscure enough to demand a glossary. The list is replete with cachacas and demeraras, Becherovkas and Cynars, applejacks and Cherry Heerings (this last one is fishily misspelled on the menu).
So tell the bartender what you like, then ask for a recommendation. Treat it like the overprivileged little boutique it is. Those who prefer the simple, however, will be well served by the highballs, in particular the city's best Pimm's Cup (a gin-based liqueur, mixed here with lemon soda and ginger beer) and the improbably tasty, herbal pairing of absinthe and Sparky's root beer (both $8). The standards—vodka soda, gin and tonic—cut very little price break because of the bar's habit of charging a separate $2 for artisan water, so don't bother as you're in the wrong place for that sort of thing anyway. Richness, here, is all.
- Order this: Tuna crudo, braised rabbit or squash, and a highball.
- Best deal: Highballs are a cool fiver between 5 and 7 pm. Otherwise, the menu focuses much more on costliness than cost.
- Iâll pass: How about I just offer a free pass instead? Best food youâll ever get after midnight in this town.
EAT: Central, 220 SW Ankeny St. 5 pm-2:30 am Monday-Saturday. $$-$$$.