Depot Dining

Central has potential, but it needs to improve to be one of downtown's best

Downtown is home to more than a few of Tucson's best restaurants. Café Poca Cosa, the Cup Café, the Barrio and Cushing Street could be considered icons, and relative newbies like the Monkey Box, Enoteca and Casa Vicente are taking strides to join them.

So where does Central Bistro, located inside the Historic Train Depot, fit into this equation?

You may remember that earlier this year, Central opened with a buzz--co-owner Mark Economou has cred because he worked for a while at the Gold Room--and some controversy, thanks to incentives given by the city in the name of downtown revitalization. Since then ... well, Mark and his wife, Sonia, don't seem to have been doing much to tout the place, and it has slipped off a lot of people's radar.

And that's a shame, because Central--while it can't quite stand up to the aforementioned icons yet--has potential.

When Garrett and I first walked in to Central on a recent Wednesday evening, a couple of people were milling around the bar/counter area, and three other tables were occupied. It was rather dead, and by the time we finished our desserts, we had the place to ourselves.

But it was a nice place to have to ourselves. Central screams "TRAIN DEPOT!" at you. The front part of the restaurant consists of a bar/counter, with a grill, fryers and a stove top directly behind the counter; it has a remarkable diner/retro feel. The two-level dining room features almost nothing in the way of decorations--there are a couple of large, brown-on-white prints on the light yellow walls, and that is it--leaving the outside train tracks as the main attraction through the large windows. There is not even any music; cooking sounds, conversation and the rumble of the occasional train provide the soundtrack. My only décor complaint comes from the air-conditioning vent that's smack-dab in the middle of the arm-level ledge along the back wall. If you're sitting at one of the tables along that wall, you're in for a drafty meal.

The dinner menu consists of a half-dozen salads, two soups, seven "starters," eight sides and a little more than a dozen entrée options. (The lunch menu is similar, although it's heavier on salads and sandwiches.) We decided to try two starters: the braised artichokes ($13) and the East Coast crab cakes ($11). I also got a small order of the variety onion and tomato bisque ($3.50), while Garrett selected a side salad ($3).

Our pleasant server quickly delivered the appetizers. While the crab cakes were only OK--the "tartar paint" on top overwhelmed the taste of the crab, and the roasted tomato coulis on the bottom added nothing--the artichokes were a revelation. Five artichoke stems were swimming in a yellow sauce featuring sherry, Dijon mustard, parmesan and truffle oil. The mustard dominated the sauce, with the wine and cheese complementing the flavor. While I thought the delicious sauce completely masked the artichokes, Garrett claimed he could still taste them. In any case, this dish is a must-have, as long as you like mustard.

The soup and salad came next. Garrett's salad was a fresh spring mix with a nice, citrusy vinaigrette; my soup was creamy and warm, although it could have used more flavor. The potato actually overshadowed the onion (which added mostly sweetness).

After a wait that was a little longer than it should have been (which felt even longer due to the draft), our main courses arrived. I received the shredded roast chicken penne pasta tubes ($14), while Garrett got the "Mom's meatloaf" ($13)--but only after the server informed him his first choice, the grilled rib eye steak ($26), was unavailable. Sadly, only Garrett's dish was worth the wait. His meatloaf was juicy and packed with spices, such as oregano. It sat on a bed of bacon mashed potatoes and creamed corn, while caramelized onions sat on top. The downside was the so-called "real gravy," which was watery and bland. Fortunately, the meatloaf had enough flavor to right that wrong. (Garrett said he was "jonesing for ketchup" as he ate, but he was never offered any.)

Then there was my chicken penne. The chicken and the broth were almost completely without flavor, meaning I could only really taste the accompanying spinach and tomato. It was a serious disappointment.

The meal ended on a brighter note, as we both enjoyed our desserts, even if they both had consistency issues. I got the Grand Mariner cheesecake ($6); it came in a ramekin and was topped with crumbs and some candied oranges (which were too bitter to enjoy). While it had the consistency of a mousse, it tasted excellent. Garrett's mousse, meanwhile, also tasted excellent--but it, unlike the cheesecake, did not have the consistency of a mousse. It was abnormally thick and chalky.

I returned to Central a couple of days later for lunch. Stephen Seigel, our esteemed music editor, joined me. The restaurant this time had about a half-dozen tables occupied, a seemingly low number for a Friday lunch hour. We ordered the cornmeal-crusted calamari ($9) for an appetizer. For entrées, Steve picked the roasted chicken ($13) while I ordered the grand Central burger ($8.50).

We received the appetizer quickly--and we enjoyed it. The calamari was perfectly cooked, and the sauce, billed as a "sweet orange remoulade," tasted more like regular tartar sauce than anything else; we could have used more of it, but we were nonetheless satisfied.

Our main entrées took much longer to arrive; this could have caused a problem had we been in a hurry. And when they did arrive, we were underwhelmed. My burger had a lot of flavor, but the dusted potato bun was larger than the cooked-down patty--a pet peeve of mine. I requested both fries and onion rings; the fries were overcooked and oddly brown, and the onion rings--also coated in cornmeal--were predominantly made up of the outer layers of an onion, making them largely inedible. Steve's chicken, "with pan sauce," lacked seasoning. While Steve was not thrilled with the chicken, he raved about the accompanying mashed potatoes and the delicious sautéed fresh spinach.

So, there you have it. Our two meals were either hit (that braised artichoke sauce!) or miss (cornmeal-covered onion skins?). If the folks behind Central could work on the details--and get the word out--they'd be on to something. There's great potential here, but more of it needs to be fulfilled before Central can join the ranks of downtown's restaurant icons.

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