Central has Become Essential to Montgomery’s Downtown Food Scene

In downtown Montgomery, steps from the reclaimed riverfront and right in the middle of an important past, a restaurant called Central is delighting guests with inventive dishes and gracious hospitality.

Central is named for the old central warehouse area, now a hip and happening entertainment district of restaurants, hotels, bars and museums. Common Bond Brewers is nearby, and Riverfront Park is an exciting venue for boat rides, concerts, Montgomery Biscuits Minor League Baseball games and more.

Montgomery has transformed its downtown, and people have come.

For six years now, Central has been a delicious reason to visit. With sophisticated dining in a cool, historic space, Central has become essential to our capital city’s food scene.

I went there recently for Alabama NewsCenter. You can read the entire story here.

Executive chef Jason McGarry says Central offers “Southern, casual, upscale dining” in a unique building that really lets the food shine.

“We have a great, knowledgeable staff,” he adds. “It’s not so white-tablecloth-stuffy that you feel like you have to sit a certain way. You can come in here and have a great time and eat some awesome food and just relax.”

The large, main dining room has an exciting view of a high-energy open kitchen. The restaurant makes great use of the good bones in this 1890s grocery warehouse with its huge, hand-hewn beams. There’s no art on the beautiful, exposed brick walls—only flickering gas lanterns and giant foxed mirrors to reflect what was originally there.

An old iron rail cart in the middle of the room marries form and function with flowers and tasteful décor on top and baskets of fresh napkins below. Cozy booths, intimate two-tops and long family-style tables offer lots of dining options. The bar is its own cool space with plenty of seating; televisions here are hidden from the rest of the restaurant under a clever, slatted awning.

Flavors are complex, and dishes are pretty here.

McGarry serves sorghum-glazed pork belly with Wickles pickles and kimchi sprouts. Savory short rib agnolotti features celery root puree, brown butter, pickled shallots and foie gras demi glace. A salad of charred radicchio is dressed with pomegranate seeds, creamy burrata, blood orange and pork belly.

Lunch offerings at Central range from the Southerner (aged cheddar pimento cheese, bacon and fried bologna on sourdough bread) to a simple burrata and tomato flatbread smoky from the wood-fired oven.  Fried green tomatoes are topped with Texas caviar and pimento cheese queso. A classic steakhouse wedge salad features candied pecans and a house-made bleu cheese dressing.

During dinner service, numerous plates of the slow-cooked short ribs come out of the kitchen. On this night, they are served with smoked Gouda grits, balsamic pearl onions, butternut squash and bacon-fried Brussels spouts with a Burgundy sauce.

McGarry says he has seen Central’s traffic grow dramatically in the past year. Lunch, especially, has gotten busy since The Legacy Museum opened. Downtown hotels like the Renaissance Montgomery Hotel and Spa in the convention center bring lots of out-of-state visitors during the week; locals frequent the restaurant on Friday and Saturday nights; McGarry loves sharing Central with all of them.

“We get to throw a party every night,” he says. “We’re hosting guests every night. That’s the main thing for us.”

Sunday Dinner: Dijon and Cognac Beef Stew

I’ve looked forward all week to an afternoon of cooking. It’s cold and gray outside, and I wanted to make something warm and comforting. A from-scratch stew–rich and deeply savory–is about as comforting as it gets. This recipe from the New York Times Cooking website is an exercise in the meditative process of quality time spent with a cast-iron Dutch oven and a long, wooden spoon. It is as satisfying, in some ways, as the end result.

Here’s what I did differently:  I substituted pancetta for the salt pork–1/3 of a pound–and I added it back in with the mushrooms. Also, I used Maille Old Style mustard instead of Pommery. And I used only 2 tablespoons of that instead of 4.

Regina Schrambling brought this recipe for Dijon and Cognac Beef Stew to the Times in 2001–after the World Trade Center attacks. I remember cooking many dishes like this stew in my own kitchen. I cooked almost constantly in those dark, scary days, taking portions to neighbors next door, inviting friends for impromptu dinners. It was how I coped and how I showed love to those I love the most.

As Schrambling pointed out:  “… long before there were antidepressants, there was stew.”

Amen to that.

Dijon and Cognac Beef Stew

INGREDIENTS

¼ pound salt pork, diced

1 large onion, finely diced

3 shallots, chopped

2 to 4 tablespoons butter, as needed

2 pounds beef chuck, in 1-inch cubes

2 tablespoons flour

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

4 tablespoons butter, as needed

½ cup Cognac

2 cups beef stock

½ cup Dijon mustard

4 tablespoons Pommery mustard

4 large carrots, peeled and cut into half-moon slices

½ pound mushrooms, stemmed, cleaned and quartered

¼ cup red wine

PREPARATION

Place salt pork in a Dutch oven or a large heavy kettle over low heat, and cook until fat is rendered. Remove solid pieces with a slotted spoon, and discard. Raise heat, and add onion and shallots. Cook until softened but not browned, 10 to 15 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer to a large bowl.

If necessary, add 2 tablespoons butter to the pan to augment fat. Dust beef cubes with flour, and season with salt and pepper. Shake off excess flour, and place half the cubes in the pan. Cook over medium-high heat until well browned, almost crusty, on all sides, then transfer to a bowl with onions. Repeat with remaining beef.

Add Cognac to the empty pan, and cook, stirring, until the bottom is deglazed and the crust comes loose. Add stock, Dijon mustard and 1 tablespoon Pommery mustard. Whisk to blend, then return meat and onion mixture to pan. Lower heat, cover pan partway, and simmer gently until meat is very tender, about 1 1/2 hours.

Add carrots, and continue simmering for 30 minutes, or until slices are tender. As they cook, heat 2 tablespoons butter in medium skillet over medium-high heat, and sauté mushrooms until browned and tender.

Stir mushrooms into the stew along with remaining mustard and red wine. Simmer 5 minutes, then taste, and adjust seasoning. Serve hot.

Fox 6 Books: January

Happy New Year! Here’s what I brought to WBRC Fox 6 on January 1. Let’s the year off right with some advice on gracious living then move on to a gritty novel, a gripping thriller and an unusual memoir.

Whiskey in a Teacup by Reese Witherspoon is subtitled What Growing Up in the South Taught Me About Life, Love and Baking Biscuits. And this breezy book is about all that and more. The biscuit recipe is in the chapter that celebrates Easter, and there is an accompanying playlist (April in Paris by Billie Holiday is featured). The recipes alone are worth the price of admission. Dorothea’s Brined and Battered Fried Chicken is a combination of a 1940s recipe and several others written in Witherspoon’s grandmother’s own hand. The baked Brie is starring at my next party, and the shrimp and grits will enter our dinner rotation next week. There are ideas on entertaining—from a Kentucky Derby party to a Full Moon Midnight BBQ Barn Party. There’s a funny, clever Southern pronunciation key, a list of must-read books by Southern writers and ideas for decorating. Just pick a holiday. The book was inspired by Witherspoon’s grandmother who always said “it was a combination of beauty and strength that made Southern women ‘whiskey in a teacup.’”

Sugar Run by Mesha Maren (on sale Jan. 8) is a debut novel set in rural West Virginia that explores dreams and love amongst broken people living in a damaged landscape. That said, it’s a beautifully written book. Jodi McCarty was 17 when she went to prison for manslaughter. Upon her release 18 years later, she returns to the Appalachian mountains of her youth. She meets and falls in love with Miranda, and the two try to make a fresh start in a place that refuses to change. The book also is about the stark realities of post-prison life in our country. Maren writes what she knows. She says, “There is a federal prison in the town where I was born … and both my parents were involved in the prison in various ways (this is the same prison where Martha Stewart and Billie Holiday were held).” Prison activism is a big part of Maren’s life; her parents met working at the prison, and her father would take her along when he visited inmates. In her adult life she has taught creative writing classes to male inmates in Iowa City and Beckley, West Virginia.

Pieces of Her by Karin Slaughter is a highly descriptive thriller that asks:  How well do we know anyone, really? Andrea Oliver thought she knew her mother, Laura. But when Laura quite calmly faces down a murderer (and kills him in the process), Andrea is forced to question lots of things. It turns out that Laura was a very different person before she had Andrea. And for 30 years she has tried to be someone else—a caring mother; a beloved speech therapist; a quiet person in a sleepy, beachside town. After the violence that involved a teenaged shooter who was the son of Georgia law enforcement “royalty,” Laura’s past is exposed and nothing will ever be the same. To save her mother, Andrea first needs to figure out exactly who she is. The trail she follows will change them both.

Future Perfect:  A Skeptic’s Search for an Honest Mystic by Victoria Loustalot grew from the breakup of a long-term relationship and a traumatic year of mass shootings; terrorist attacks; Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria; racial unrest; and political chaos. Loustalot found herself questioning nearly everything and looking for answers in unexpected places—namely with psychics, astrologers and shamans. She begins examining the layers of mysticism—interviewing a New Jersey teen who “sees dead people,” an astrological poet in Indonesia, a psychic in Montreal, a Hawaiian empathy-intuitive and a California grandmother who might be clairvoyant. Along the way, she visits a voodoo museum in New Orleans (I think I’ve been there), takes a virtual class in astrology and becomes friends with an oracle card designer in Manhattan (hey, someone has to make them). Readers follow her down various rabbit holes as she tries to figure out what’s real, what’s not and why it even matters in the first place.

I link to Amazon to show you exactly what book I’m talking about, but I love to shop locally at Church Street Coffee and BooksThe Alabama Booksmith, Little Professor Book Center, and I often visit my local library.