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

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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.

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.

Not everything comes together as well as Barto intends, though. Sauce underneath the crispy, skin-on bass is all color (brilliant emerald) but no flavor. One night the pour of parsnip soup was so skimpy, the bowl resembled a drought-stricken pond, with low water levels revealing edibles underneath. While the duck breast is well-rendered and boasts a crispy skin, the bland preparation makes the main event less interesting than the sideshow of duck confit mixed with root vegetables. And on the service front, napkins are not refolded when a guest leaves the table mid-meal, and at times servers invent ingredients rather than check with the chef.

With his technically excellent but still approachable menu, Barto is joining a growing number of chefs who are challenging outdated notions about what neighborhood restaurants can be. Comfort food doesn't have to be simple, like macaroni and cheese or pizza, to make us feel good, he seems to be saying; it just has to taste good. Now if only he could tone down that anxiety-causing, eyestrain-inducing sign: His food is hot enough on its own.

Slide show: A Closer Look at Central Bistro & Bar

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