Chef Beck brings sexy back to Central 214 with her naughty cuisine
You have to understand this about Blythe Beck’s food: When the self-labeled "naughty chef" conjures up her "naughty dishes," she’s not talking about flautas that resemble male body parts or erotic cakes best viewed at a bachelorette party. By naughty, she does not mean "salacious" — although Beck, with her throaty laugh and wicked sense of humor, can double entendre with the best of them.
She means indulgent.
Margarine? Sacrilege! Heavy cream is always — always— preferable to milk (don’t even say the word "skim" or "fat-free" in her presence). And cayenne pepper is meant to be sprinkled over dishes like fairy dust over Never Never Land. Why show restraint when reckless abandon is so much …. naughtier? (Beck is the living embodiment of the adage, "never trust a skinny chef.")
You get what you get with Beck: No one can say she doesn’t deliver what her personality suggests. She talks to her salads the way gardeners talk to plants, and for the same reason. Her butter budget alone must rival a small country’s national debt.
For several years, while she was at Hector’s on Henderson — first as the sous chef, then running the place— Beck practiced her cult of more is more, using cheese and candied apples as cudgels to slap the culinary conservatism out of her patrons. Early this year, she was tapped by Central 214, the fine-dining destination inside the Hotel Palomar, to lead their team, which had been without an executive chef for a year.
Now they’re cookin’.
But to fully understand her food, you really have to start at the end: Desserts.
I’m not sure Beck even draws a bright line between courses. Food is meant to be enjoyed with passion, whether the dance of sugar and caramel from the sticky buns and fudge waffles or the pantingly racy tinge of cayenne on her poached shrimp deviled eggs. Maple, vanilla bean, chocolate: These are the building blocks of good eating. It’s why God invented treadmills.
This isn’t purely about fattening foods spooned down your throat like a Jewish mother, although the concept of comfort food gussied up is definitely a theme. But there’s a massive amount of creativity going on with this sexy New American style once you open yourself to the potential of audacious flavors.
"Audacious" may be overstatement in regard to the pimento cheese sandwiches, but it’s a good way to catch the drift of how the style combines the familiar with a swanky swagger. Confidence oozes from the judgment of what makes for upscale dining. Smoked pecans wheedle their way into the traditional wedge salad (called "iceberg babies") with house-made blue cheese dressing; the corn and crab bisque gets some heat from Tabasco.
Beck’s signature dish is probably the chicken-fried Kobe steak, a wedge of tenderloin doused in buttermilk and rolled in batter before being submerged in liquid fat. (Beck says they use the fryer so much, she changes out the oil three times a day.) Frying Kobe— is she serious? Most definitely. There’s almost no hint of grease in the breading, a crisp, airy medium that cradles the nicely marbled beef. It’s fall-apart yummy.
Beck also chicken-fries her oysters — heaven for a po-boy devotee like me — which she presents in beautiful, minimal dishware that fits well in the modernist atmosphere of the restaurant. (I still find the architecture slightly cold, except for the stunning bar area, but the food has warmed it up.) Fried lobster? Surprisingly spicy, and given a home-spun Southern girl’s take with the addition of bacon-cheddar grits.
The fluidity among dishes impresses. Salads and soups are as well-handled as desserts; beef and fowl and fish share equal billing. Yea for the diver scallops, caramelized and juicy with the salty bite of prosciutto and sweet blanch from the corn salsa; cheers to and sweet flavor, the soft flesh of the black cod. (The single holdover from the old menu is the lump Maryland crab cakes.)
Service on every visit has been great, despite the distraction of a video crew filming Beck and her staff for an upcoming reality show to air in the fall on the Oxygen Network. There’s a sense that some of the patrons, especially in the bar, are lurkers, hoping for their 15 minutes. If they would only step across the threshold to the dining room, they might discover a wicked bit of cookery going on.
Whether you call it naughty or sexy or just foodie fantasy fulfillment, Central 214’s new menu is really about granting permission: "It’s OK to eat good, if not well," it whispers. "Go ahead, try it. Save room for dessert. Have another drink. Carpe diem!"
Pass the sticky buns — I’m gonna be here a while.
Central 214 in the Hotel Palomar, 5680 North Central Expressway. Open daily for lunch at 11:30 a.m. and dinner at 5 p.m.; Sunday brunch 8 a.m.â€“3 p.m. 214-443-9339.
Chef Blythe Beck takes over the kitchen with a bold combination of comfort food and sophisticated seasonings. Don’t be scared — embrace the audacity of butter
THE POWER OF THE PYRAMID
Another hotel restaurant that’s enjoyed a recent makeover is Pyramid inside the Fairmont Hotel Downtown. Like Central 214, its entrance is dominated by an open and visually appealing bar. But the real interest is on the menu.
Chef jW Foster has evidenced a firm commitment to using fresh and local ingredients — virtually none are sourced more than 100 miles from Dallas, and some barely 100 feet from the restaurant: There’s a 3,000-square-foot herb and vegetable garden on the pool terrace that grows produce from watermelons to tomatoes to limes.
Foster has relaunched a new menu for summer, a pared-down version of his winter menu. There’s more thematic unity now — a clean, focused vision where everything looks tantalizing. Just choosing from among the bill of fare is a Hobson’s choice.
I kicked off a tasting with an appetizer of soft shell crab tacos (pictured), rolled in locally-made corn tortillas and stuffed with crisp, delicious crab. I craved more than the dab of tomatillo salsa and avocado creme along the side, mostly because both accented the tacos so well, as did the carrot slaw.
The heirloom tomato salad is prepared caprese style, with basil so fresh and aromatic, even without a piece on the fork the flavor wafted onto the mozzarella and antique-red cherry tomatoes. A cup of shrimp ceviche packed a nice wallop, especially with the heat off a wafer of pappadum.
For an entree, I opted for the special — a bone-in tenderloin capped by a lobe of foie gras… maybe not a heart-healthy dish, but an intoxicatingly rich treat nonetheless. As with the regular beef entree (a trio of tenderloin, short ribs and gratin souffle), the meat was sensuously soft atop a melange of pureed potatoes and root vegetables. The salty, thick slices of Peking duck exuded an authentic Chinese style.
The Meyer lemon sabayon was less tart than I was prepared for (you can’t scare me with citrus!) but a lovely finale nonetheless. Forget about eating a square meal — a Pyramid will do very nicely.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 19, 2009.