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Hot damn! Central Bistro & Bar redefines what a neighborhood restaurant can be

Slide show: A Closer Look at Central Bistro & Bar

Hot damn! Central Bistro & Bar redefines what a neighborhood restaurant can be
Mark Manger
The pork belly at Central Bistro & Bar ($12) comes with Brussels sprouts hash, walnuts, and apple butter. Slide show: A Closer Look at Central Bistro & Bar

Interior designers are paid to think about color, and for good reason. Whether on walls, fabrics or furniture, colors impact how we feel and act, often without our knowing it. Yellow, the color of sunshine, makes people happy, whereas red, the color of stop signs and Xs on school papers, can trigger anxiety. Perhaps that's why, in an experiment dubbed the "cocktail party study" a few years back by a science reporter for the New York Times, participants stayed longer in a blue room than a red one, and ate twice as much in an otherwise identical yellow room. If you've been to Central Bistro & Bar, one of many restaurants popping up in Lower Highland recently, you'll know the reason for this recap of color theory. If not, I'll fill you in: HOT.

Those three letters, stretched to impossibly large proportions and lit like glowing flames, hang on a slanted ceiling in Central's dining room, an otherwise elegant space with cream chairs, baby-blue banquettes and a pressed-tin ceiling. Though not placed directly over tables, the letters dominate the space, casting an unflattering glow on faces and simultaneously drawing your attention and hurting your eyes when you look. Originally installed on the Regency Inn Hotel (a now-defunct hotel once owned by the family of Isiah Salazar, owner-managing partner of Central, and today converted to housing for students on the Auraria campus), these six-foot-tall letters — the first three in the word "hotel" — were meant to command attention from miles away. Now hung over the kitchen's hot line, they're meant as a joke: hot, hot line, ha ha. Only I'm not sure if guests battling the glare are laughing.

And that's unfortunate, because executive chef Lance Barto is doing all he can to keep folks happy. Conceived as a gathering place rather than a destination restaurant, Central launched this summer with a slightly smaller, somewhat fancier menu. But now, almost five months after opening, Barto has listened to neighborhood feedback, nearly doubling the number of shareable appetizers while retaining enough high-end fare to remain true to his original intentions. "We've definitely worked toward making sure we're offering things to people that they want to eat several times a week," he explains.

The vegetable salad at Central Bistro & Bar is a testament to raw courage. Slide show: A Closer Look at Central Bistro & Bar
Mark Manger
The vegetable salad at Central Bistro & Bar is a testament to raw courage. Slide show: A Closer Look at Central Bistro & Bar
Mark Manger

Location Info

Map

Central Bistro & Bar

1691 Central St.
Denver, CO 80211

Category: Restaurant > New American

Region: Northwest Denver

Details

Central Bistro & Bar
Goat-cheese dumplings $12
Confit chicken wings $7
Pork belly $12
Raw vegetable salad $8
Cream of parsnip soup $8
Roasted chicken breast $20
Pork chop $25
Duck breast $23
Striped bass $24
Nutella waffle $8

Slide show: A Closer Look at Central Bistro & Bar
1691 Central Street
303-477-4582
Hours: 4:30-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 4:30-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. and 4:30-9 p.m. Sunday

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Chicken wings, for example. While college students and sports-bar fans might be able to live on the red-sauce-drenched variety, Barto offers a version the rest of us can grow just as attached to. Cured overnight, then slow-cooked in duck fat, fried and slathered not with Frank's RedHot but honey-Dijon, the wings are moist and rich, with shreds of meat that crackle when you bite. Just as good are the goat-cheese dumplings, half-moons of chewy potato dough stuffed not just with the advertised goat cheese, but with lemon-scented mascarpone, parmesan and kale, too, and finished with nutty brown butter and walnuts. Decadent? Yes. Too much for a Tuesday? Never. Who says we have to wait for special occasions to spoil ourselves?

Certainly not Barto, a veteran of Strings, Linger and Wild Catch who serves white-tablecloth-worthy fare in such a casual way that you don't hesitate to order it while sipping a cocktail and dishing about the day. The menu enhances this casual feel; it's written as a string of simple ingredients that don't begin to hint at the time or technique involved in preparing each dish. Cream of parsnip soup, for instance, is listed simply as the soup, apple, frisee, turnips and horseradish. (Provenance is listed for the apple, but after years of the eat-local movement, that hardly seems fancy.) What the menu doesn't say is that the apple is really scratch-made apple butter and the horseradish is horseradish-apple mousse. And those delightful golden specks that tickle your tongue like toasted breadcrumbs — the ones actually made from pureed parsnips strained and cooked in oil? They aren't mentioned at all. An appetizer of pork belly, crispy tops accenting the fatty goodness underneath, sounds good enough with the Brussels sprouts noted on the menu, but it is the unlisted gremolata (a sauce of herbs, lemon zest, walnuts and garlic) that brightens what might otherwise be too heavy a dish. And a raw-vegetable salad that looks like boring spa food on the menu turns out to be an enticing plated posy of pickled green beans, yellow cauliflower and impossibly thin slivers of fennel, radish, turnips, beets and carrots.

Slide show: A Closer Look at Central Bistro & Bar

The simple descriptions certainly increase the menu's approachability. After all, if you knew all that had gone into each dish, you'd have to take the food more seriously, and serious gets in the way of that whole neighborhood-casual vibe. But that's not the only tether keeping this restaurant down to earth and far from fancy-land. Barto litters his roster with tongue-in-cheek dishes such as green eggs and ham — deviled eggs dyed green thanks to parsley purée, with a shoot of crisp prosciutto. Roast chicken shares the plate with a breaded, fried soft-boiled egg to recall the old joke, "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" This edible pun doesn't stop there; an extraordinary pilaf of grains — farro, quinoa, barley, wild rice and sunflower seeds — is also meant to evoke chicken feed. Desserts are humorous, too, if only in how quickly respectable adults devour the Nutella, banana and butterscotch rum-covered waffle.

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4 comments
jennikoa
jennikoa

This is super nit-picky, but it's "mascarpone" not "marscapone". It's not really a rare ingredient anymore, so this error is kind of glaring.

Mantonat
Mantonat topcommenter

"napkins are not refolded when a guest leaves the table mid-meal"

I think there are only a couple of places in the whole city that do this. Nothing makes me feel more like I'm at a special-occasion restaurant than someone fussing with my napkin while I'm away from the table. If Central is trying to maintain a casual, neighborhood personality, such flourishes would feel overly formal.

Philo99
Philo99

Central Bistro a neighborhood restaurant? Maybe if we were at Miami Beach. With the glaring HOT sign, the white pleather seats, the cool metallic bar theme and the uptight bar stools, the last thing that comes to mind at Central is neighborhood restaurant. When a neighborhood restaurant pops in my head I think of a gathering place, where locals hang out to avoid their spouses. Just adding chicken wings and fried pickles to the happy hour menu does not turn you into a neighborhood restaurant.

I don't at all intend to disparage Central with that disagreement. I find Central to be a fine dining establishment, more destination spot than a neighborhood restaurant, and that is something they do well. The pork belly and the scallops are wonderful starters, and the raw vegetable salad is the definition of sophisticated simplicity.   Less impressive is the daily charcuterie, which may be true to definition,but most diners have come to expect more than a one note song when ordering a charcuterie platter.

Denver Dave
Denver Dave topcommenter

I, too, find the HOT sign a distraction.  It pretty much overtakes (not it a good way) an otherwise lovely restaurant.  It will not deter me from returning though.  We've been twice and the food has been sublime on both occasions.  Had the same very warm and helpful young woman server on both occasions and she remembered us and what we had eaten on our first visit and recommended different food and wine selections for a new experience.  Quickly becoming a favorite!

 
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