Cuisine, Service, Ambiance

Cuisine, Service, Ambiance

Central Park picks up some new fans of fine dining during Restaurant Week

By Erica Wayne 05/16/2013

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I have to say, prior to last month's seasonal Restaurant Week I had only been to Central Park once. That experience, several years back when the restaurant was new, left me lukewarm. Lunch was OK, nothing special, and the price-to-value ratio struck me as unfavorable. But either I misjudged it or the restaurant's improved, because I've been raving for the past several weeks about our recent dinner there.

Of course, one of the high points was Restaurant Week's opportunity for reduced prices. Our three-course meal was a mere $26. I'd made a thorough study of all the other local participants' "special menus" and found that several "name" establishments were quite a bit ($10 to $20) more expensive than Central Park, as well as adding surcharges for particular dishes and a third course, a real turn-off.

When we arrived at about 7 Wednesday evening, the formal dining room was completely full, so we were seated on the "porch," which has brick walls, a concrete floor and large windows facing the parking lot. We didn't mind. Although the main space is turn-of-the-last-century charming, seating is tight when there's a crowd. Our table was far enough from our neighbors to allow for private conversation and plenty of people (and platter) watching while we ate. 

Service was incredibly good, despite the crowd. Our waitress had time for a brief chat while she took our order, and warm yeasty cheese-garlic crostini and onion foccaccia appeared almost immediately, along with chili-spiked oil and balsamic vinegar for dipping. The wine list was appealing, with most vintages moderately priced. Our pleasant pinot noir was made even more pleasant by its modest $28 price tag.

None of the three appetizers (parsnip soup, roasted beet/goat cheese arugula salad and sesame-crusted seared ahi) appears on the regular menu, although a grilled ahi nicoise salad ($13.25) and sandwich ($11.95) are available at lunch. A seared ahi salad ($11.75) is served at Canoe House in South Pasadena, one of Central Park's five sister restaurants. (The others are Beckham Grill in Pasadena, Diner on Main in Alhambra and the two Shakers Restaurants in South Pasadena and Glendale.) 

Our salad was quite tasty, simply dressed with a tart lime and olive oil vinaigrette, but both beets and goat cheese were in short supply, more an afterthought than prime components. Just after ours was delivered, we overheard our server tell a nearby table that they'd run out, which may explain why we felt somewhat shortchanged on this single item. 

As for the ahi, we expected the skimpy but prettily stacked arrangement common at many restaurants and were flabbergasted to instead be presented with a generous and gorgeously plated portion: five thick slabs of ruby tuna, individual cuplets of wasabi, soy and ginger and a decorative dusting of wonton crumbles and chopped parsley. WOW! I expressed disappointment that this dish wasn't on the daily menu and was told they were thinking about adding it. If they do, it's a must-have!

Our entrees included selected boneless short ribs braised with caramelized vegetables and red wine, served with creamy three-cheese polenta and sautéed spinach. We also had sautéed Pacific sand dabs with lemon caper sauce, fanned out on a heap of Yukon gold garlic mashed potatoes and paired with sautéed seasonal vegetables, an inventive medley of green beans, halved Brussels sprouts, baby carrots and a sprig of broccolini. The Restaurant Week discount was steep (lucky us!), but we wouldn't mind paying full price ($19.50 and $18.25) for either on a return visit.

Finally, it was time for dessert, and the choice (only two items) was easy: Sticky toffee pudding with toffee sauce and whipped cream and berry cobbler a la mode. Again, we were prepared for the dainty portions doled out by many high-end kitchens and were delighted to find (even though we could really have done with less) that the slab of pudding and cupped boysenberry cobbler, both warm, were more than ample for sharing and absolutely delicious. These pastries are also featured at Beckham Grill, perfect for that restaurant's British-themed fare.

Adjacent diners were feasting on a large margarita pizza ($11.95) and a huge burger and fries ($12.25) that piqued our interest. Other menu items also sounded well worth trying, such as crispy calamari with jalapeno tartar sauce ($9.25), sherried crab bisque ($6.50), wild mushroom risotto with garlic and white truffle oil ($14.95) and grilled chicken caprese sandwich with red and yellow tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, arugula, basil aioli and shaved red onions ($11.95).

So, with one meal, Central Park, named as much, I presume, for the eponymous local park right across the street as the one in the Big Apple, has risen from a place I hardly ever thought about to a favored destination. By the time the next Restaurant Week comes along in the fall, it's likely that we will have been back to Central Park for multiple highly enjoyable visits. 

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