Bread and Brew
Hidden in plain sight, Central is pulling off the Portland restaurant equivalent of the perfect crime. Owner Dustin Knox started with a food cart - Perierra Crêperie, which is still folding crepes on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard. Last year, he opened Central in the heart of downtown, creating a sophisticated cocktail bar that, more recently, has also become a sophisticated restaurant, serving late into the night.
The secret is balance.
It's evident in the first sip of a spiced New York sour, a complex drink in which lemon juice, dark Demerara sugar and mulled wine dance around an anchor of bourbon that never gets lost in the shuffle, even when egg white is added to make the drink frothy.
Similarly, a cocktail called Maiden Oregon keeps the focus on its base of locally made Krogstad Aquavit. Apple brandy, Douglas fir eau de vie, lemon juice and orange-cardamom syrup play supporting roles, each contributing, none upstaging.
The Shallow Grave delivers a exotic smokiness, thanks to lapsang souchong tea, nicely blended with applejack, yellow Chartreuse, apple-pear cider and ginger ale.
Start with a cocktail, and then consider moving on to wine or beer. The small, carefully calibrated plates deserve your full attention.
A starter of lightly pickled lemon cucumbers is crisp and biting, with an insightful garnish of basil sprigs and snowy feta. More garnish would be even better - we scrambled for every last crumb of feta - but overall it's a pretty dish that follows through with lots of personality.
Slices of ahi tuna are wrapped in brioche for a layer of toasty crunch. The fish itself is supple, firm and garnet red. It's arranged on a trio of purees: artichoke, Castelvetrano olive and eggplant. The artichoke, in particular, holds a smooth and intensified flavor, creating a symbiosis with the fish that is surprisingly perfect.
In another dish, three little haystacks of Dungeness crab are surrounded by pomegranate seeds and magenta pools of pomegranate juice, tinctured with vanilla. Possibly a little too much vanilla, but still, another attractive and creative assembly of flavors, and the crab itself is topnotch.
Someone here knows how to select seafood, because the scallops are also excellent. They are seared outside and just barely done at their hearts, and this precisely timed cooking maximizes the elusive, creamy quality of a really good scallop. And I do mean scallop, singular - we shared the dish, and there were two, surrounded by a lemony preparation of cauliflower, bacon, and celery leaf.
Portions are dainty but most dishes have a vivid, generous feel to them. For instance, a delicate pile of hand-rolled pasta is inundated with crisp cubes of pancetta, chili flake, and the poached yolk of a duck egg. It's the Cadillac of pasta carbonaras.
The chef is Jake Martin, formerly of the fine-dining spots Carlyle and Fenouil, both of which have closed. He's moved to a much grungier and more insular neighborhood.
Central is on Southwest Ankeny Street, in between Dan and Louis Oyster Bar and Valentine's, a stone's throw from Voodoo Doughnut. The street has been closed since this summer, blockaded with picnic tables. Now, the tables are wet and empty - step inside the unmarked door and behind a heavy curtain to enter Central's dramatic dining room.
I think we can all agree that the taxidermy thing has gotten out of control, but the giant elk head that dominates Central still imposes a morbid, woodsy awe. Its antlers are tangled in the long cords of light bulbs that descend from the high, high ceiling. The place feels as tall as it is wide, with a towering wall of distressed brick on one side and velvet-patterned wallpaper on the other. It gets darker, and the music gets louder, as the night progresses.
The tables and chairs look like they came out of a high school chemistry lab. So does the paraphernalia used to make cocktails: glass beakers, vinaigrette sets, eye droppers and even a little spray bottle to deliver a mist of absinthe to the house Sazerac. In practice, the drink could have used more absinthe, and the addition of Irish whiskey didn't work for me.
There's another drink on the menu called an absinthe frappe - absinthe, cream and lime juice - that sounds like a curdled, discordant thing. I'm going to try it, though, next time I'm here, because I believe Central can get away with it.
Central, 5 p.m.-midnight Sunday, 5 p.m.-2:30 a.m. Monday-Saturday, 220 S.W. Ankeny St., 503-869-1445, small plates $4-$20