DOUGH BUSINESS: Central 37’s veal/leek dumplings are outstanding.
I’m not a chef chaser, but I will follow a chef with a recognizable style. In the case of Rene Michelena, whose signatures include underdone juicy morsels and a subtle fusion he calls MediterAsian, it’s been quite a zigzag, from Centro (I missed his debut at La Bettola) to St. Botolph to the Vault; on to Caffe Umbra, where he consulted; over to Saint; upstairs to Domani; and now downtown to Central 37.
|Central 37 | 617.263.0037 | 21 Broad St, Boston | AE, DC, DI, MC, VI | Open Mon-Wed, 11 am-10 pm; Thurs and Fri, 11 am-11 pm; and Sat, 5-11 pm | Full bar | No valet parking | Sidewalk-level access to lounge tables|
And it is no small trick just to find Central 37, since it isn’t at 37, isn’t on Central, and is so far back from the sidewalk of its official address (21 Broad Street) that it’s better to think of it as being behind the huge 75 State Street building. (To further complicate things, when you get to the door, the sign says “Market,” which is the first-floor lounge.) Central 37 was apparently the name of an ancient inn or tavern on the site, which was most recently the Black Rhino.
Worse, I’m clearly not the only one who’s having trouble finding the place. Early on a weeknight, we had the dining room to ourselves, and it was probably the same everywhere else in the four-level venue, which includes a private dining room and rooftop bar. They had some bad nights this past spring when a Boston Globe critic was in the house, and her one-star review, combined with prices on the higher end, has likely kept crowds away. (Price points have since come down a notch.) All that said, the kitchen was having a good night when we got there. The food wasn’t great Michelena, but it was him, and fun, and there are some real advantages to being the only diners in the room: no noise problem, superior service, and our choice of TV stations (women’s tennis).
We began with a plate of eight kinds of roasted olives with lemon and spices ($7). One of the spices might well be cinnamon, so these are odd but appetizing olives. This was a big plate with plenty of flavored oil, ideal for soaking up with crusty bread. Pork lumpia ($8) are Filipino spring rolls, presented sliced and standing on end like sushi. They’re not as outstanding as the veal/leek dumplings ($10), which, despite the meatier flavor, spurt a little broth, and are truer to the spirit of Peking ravioli than most of the Asian dumplings in town. Penang chicken fritters ($9) come with a spiced-up kind of duck sauce and a very lively hot-pepper version of a Japanese pickled salad. There’s also a fine platter of grilled asparagus ($10), though it had little evidence of the promised smoked paprika aioli and soy glaze. I don’t doubt those ingredients were in there. Michelena’s approach has always been to enhance rather than overpower with seasoning, and sometimes his hand is so light that the food is deceptively plain — in a positive way.
Each bite of a Bibb and Roquefort salad ($12), had all the titular elements (including chopped hazelnuts and Asian pears treated somehow to have actual taste) working together to make something semi-sweet and salty. It’s arranged beautifully and symmetrically.
Entrées aren’t as far-out as they were when Central 37 first opened this past winter, and the restaurant has added some gourmet burgers for a less-expensive option. My favorite item was chicken stuffed with pea stems ($18). I’ve had so many dried-out stuffed chicken dishes that I’ve pretty much stopped ordering them. But I got this one on the (fortunately correct) theory that Michelena likes chicken undercooked, so his stuffed chicken would be, at worst, perfect. And it nearly is. The stuffing of pea tendrils wasn’t as spectacular as the dish of garlicky pea tendrils you get in Chinatown because the chef tried to save the garlic for the sauce (served in a little pitcher). A few sweet potatoes complete the dish, which is as satisfying a plate of chicken as I’ve had in months.
Lamb chops ($26) are baby ones in a few Moroccan spices, with merguez lamb sausage to pump up the platter. Larger appetites will delight in the four zucchini pancakes included with this meal. Corned and roasted swordfish ($21) is only a little bit corned, an unusual treatment that lightens the texture to something more like a slice of bread than a swordfish steak. Applied to a fresher piece of fish — the menus of deserted restaurants have their danger zones — this could be fabulous. The garnish was green baby bok choy.
For a smaller option, we had a “Carolina pulled pork” sandwich ($12). This is about as au-jus a pulled-pork sandwich as you are going to have, with no real browning and a little sweetness. We ate it with a fork; the sopping bread bun was an afterthought. Great French fries, though.