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Monday, June 18, 2018

The Central Issue

From the Food Vault Dept.: How much do restaurant review matter? At one time, they were on the order of sacred pronouncements issuing from a privileged few; now, the voices that clog online review sites have created a cranky clamor that obscures the opinions of those actually qualified to make such judgments. But I found out where I stood back in 2011, when my review of the short-lived Central Steak ran in Metroland at the same time that Cheryl Clark’s review of the place ran in the Albany Times-Union. As it happened, we sat together at the restaurant, and below you’ll read why. As it also happened, there were considerable problems with the meal. Cheryl’s review was fair but unkind, and the White Management Group, which owned the restaurant, swooped down on the Times-Union and gave Cheryl’s bosses hell, which, naturally, redounded to the experienced, professional reporter who was doing her job and doing it well. Over at Metroland? We never heard a peep.


JOURNALISTS DISLIKE COINCIDENCES. They are the stuff of the fictionist, desperate to tie together divergent threads of plot. Yet they do occur, and they must be dealt with.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
It is a coincidence that my review of Dinosaur Bar-B-Que ran the same week as Cheryl Clark’s piece in the Albany Times-Union. It is also a coincidence, and, given my travels last Saturday, a very unlikely one, that we should encounter Clark and her husband, Paul, at Central Steak.

My family and I were waiting to be seated. Saturday night can be a trying time for restaurants, but we hoped that Central Steak was designed to move food and customers along with some efficiency. As soon as you enter, you can the grill – a long, open line banging out entrĂ©es like something out of “Modern Times.”

This was our third stop on my search for a burger. One place was closed, another far too crowded. I would have abandoned Central Steak, with a promised half-hour wait, had not my wife and daughter complained of their own hunger.

So we were there without a reservation, enjoying wisps of schadenfreude as we noted that even those with reservations had to wait. And that’s all we enjoyed, because after giving a name at the host’s station, at no time during our lengthy hallway occupation did either of the attendants there say a word to us.

No countdown (“Looks like it’ll be just another ten minutes”), no menu talk (“You came on a good night – we’ve got a stuffed veal chop on special”), no chat (“Are you from the area?” “Have you been here before?”) Good restaurateurs know that no amount of ad dollars can beat word of mouth, and every minute a customer is in the house is a free PR opportunity.

We were seated at a five-top just after our friends walked in, so we offered to spare them from their own promised wait. We dined together.

Central Steak is the handsomely made-over Butcher Block, refurbished by its owner, White Management, to present a new face to a flagging economy. Tables are spread through two large rooms with a bar between, and everything has been lavishly reappointed – but no amount of fancy decor makes up for inconsistent food and service.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
There are customers who enter a restaurant spoiling for a fight. That’s not me. That’s not anyone who was in my party. Seated and with a good glass of ale already half-consumed, I was relaxed and ready for beef.

The menu promised a burger fix on its list of  $6 to $12 small plates. You can get shrimp cocktail, salmon tacos, chicken spiedies and the provocatively described short rib shepherd’s pie, made with apricots and Yukon gold potatoes, but I wanted the sliders ($7), which turned out to be two mini-burgers that gained flavor from onions and mushrooms and barbecue sauce, but which surrendered much of their presence to the bread that surrounds it.

Across the table, Paul was served a variation that put short-rib meat between the buns ($8), and thus had a more dramatic presence. But what about the little skewer of pineapple and tomato chunks served with each? Mine was grilled. Paul’s was cold. Quality control needed here.

Details like that shake your confidence. Susan’s starter, a cream of celery soup ($3), never arrived, although it remained on the check until we pointed out the error. But I liked the heat and the allspice-rich mix of spices in Cheryl’s jerk shrimp skewers ($10).

The wide range of salads includes a $10 Caesar, a $13 compote of apple, fennel, orange, arugula and a pomegranate vinaigrette and even a $22 cobb with lobster and blue cheese. But a house salad is served to the table – a big bowl of good mixed greens and tomatoes, with containers of blue cheese dressing and balsamic vinaigrette on the side.

When the entrĂ©es arrived, Paul and I again got to see two perspectives of similar items. His ribeye (14 oz., $24) was in the right state of medium-rare doneness. I’d asked for the same finish for my porterhouse (20 oz., $32), but it was thoroughly well done.

To their immense credit, the restaurant immediately replaced it and comped it, which is the only return-visit inducing way to remedy the problem. I didn’t complain that the replacement was, according to the menu-printed description, a solid medium. Big-time quality control needed here.

The hanger steak ($21) puts what’s actually a very tasty cut under a sweet, thick sauce of brandied cherries and toasted almonds that would be better served on the side. My wife found the sliced pork flat iron ($15) satisfying but not as flashy as the promise of red and poblano pepper salad, cilantro vinaigrette and chile threads suggested. And the crab-stuffed shrimp ($20), served with a lobster sauce, sported a very nice combination of flavors except for leaning too heavily in the salt direction.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Fried plantains figure as sides on a number of plates, which is an unusual and welcome touch. But the plantains Foster offered as dessert were fantastically oversweetened.

It seemed only fair to re-try the restaurant, so my daughter and I returned for lunch the following Monday. Only a handful of others were dining there at 1 PM, and we were immediately seated and enjoyed careful attention from a personable waiter – and a very nice meal.

The lunch menu is whittled from what’s offered for dinner, with sandwiches added in place of the big meat dishes. Lobster bisque ($11) had a gorgeous texture, a strong presence of lobster, and a little too much salt. Except for the sliders, the only burger offered is a $20 Kobe beef thing, which I won’t buy because I don’t want to encourage that pretentious practice.

So I ordered the shaved prime rib sandwich instead ($10), and was quite pleased with simple presentation of meat and bun and horseradish mayo. A side of string beans was crunchy and served with that most delightful of all foodstuffs, roasted garlic cloves.

Despite the pretentiousness my fine-dining habits encourage, I’m a big steakhouse fan and would love to see this place flourish. Quality control. Front of house. Training, training, training. Put it all together and you’ll have something that’s, for this area, rare. And I’ll be the first to say well done.

Central Steak, 1632 Central Ave., Albany. The former Butcher Block refurbished and menu revamped, with an array of steaks, seafood, salads and even small plates for economical dining. Serving lunch Mon-Fri 11:30-3, dinner Sun-Tue 4-9, Wed-Sat 4-10. AE, D, MC, V. [Now closed.]

Metroland Magazine, 3 February 2011

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