The following review appears in The Washington Post’s 2016 Fall Dining Guide.
Forgive me for the generalization, but I think female chefs tend to be better editors of their food than their male counterparts. Guys are inclined to show off; women tend to show more restraint. That’s one reason I love breaking bread at Centrolina, the light-filled dining room in CityCenterDC that does triple duty as a food market (stocked with vegetables and house-made pasta) and a coffee bar (spring for a pistachio coin with your espresso). Chef Amy Brandwein, keeper of the wood-fired oven, sends out dishes that nevertheless tickle all the senses. Witness an appetizer of pretend “meatballs” (actually shiitakes, parsley and caramelized onion) lined up on a stripe of corn-y polenta ringed in basil oil, or chicken paillard that’s pounded so thin it looks like grill-striped pita on its plate. Rising from the flattened breast, rich with herbs, is an elevation of frisee and arugula fluffed up with quinoa. Bottom line: Simple is sublime.
2 1/2 stars
Centrolina: 974 Palmer Alley NW. 202-898-2426. centrolinadc.com .
Prices: Mains $23-$36.
Sound check: 79 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.
The following review was originally published Dec. 16, 2015.
Centrolina review: Without bells and whistles, it’s simply good
With my eyes closed, I think I could discern a dish made by Cedric Maupillier from that of a competitor, given the clever joust between soft and crisp textures at his new Convivial.
Eyes open, I bet I could tag a dish by Fabio Trabocchi even if I weren’t sitting in his flagship Fiola, home of some of the most ornate (and certainly richest) food around.
Few chefs season their dishes like Vikram Sunderam, the master of spicing at Rasika and Rasika West End. His Indian food is a balancing act every bit as compelling as a scene from “The Walk.”
Consider now the work of Amy Brandwein, 45, a disciple of Roberto Donna with a lower profile who ventured out on her own this spring with a combination restaurant and market. It’s called Centrolina, and it occupies a stretch of Palmer Alley in the pristine CityCenterDC. One side is a tidy dining room with an intimate bar, white-washed brick walls, splashes of teal and cubbies for the wood used to fire Centrolina’s oven. The rest of the space hosts display cases of (sustainable) fish and (hormone-free) meat, bins of citrus and mushrooms, refrigerated meals to go and more than a few designer labels. The milk flows from Trickling Springs, the coffee by way of Vigilante.
Multiple meals over several months at Centrolina reveal a kitchen that impresses diners less with a trademark than with select ingredients that haven’t been manipulated beyond recognition. Asked where she gets her ideas, Brandwein says, “I see stuff. I cook it,” a philosophy that matches her straightforward menu. Enter grilled branzino bedded on creamy butter beans, punctuated with bright red baby bell peppers, everything identifiable and satisfying — refreshing in its simplicity, just like another day’s minestrone swirled with kale and bobbing with fennel-laced pork sausage. Which is not to say there aren’t moments of whimsy. The first thing you want to do when the carrot salad arrives is post the beauty on Instagram. A study in orange and gold, sparked with turmeric and lemon, the twisty hedge features carrots that have been roasted, shaved, fried or pickled. I left on a beta-carotene high.
Octopus. Tuna. Chicken. They’re the three dishes Brandwein lists as customer favorites, and to taste them is to believe her (and trust the masses). The first crowd-pleaser is a grilled seafood appetizer splayed over rich potato slices and lightened with celery leaves. The tuna, lightly seared and propped against a pillar of bone marrow, soars from a base of soft charred onions and something green and crisp, most recently snowpeas. Last but not least, baby chicken swells with pan juices and smoke from its time over an oak fire.
Brandwein was the first and only female chef de cuisine at Donna’s acclaimed Galileo (still missed by some of us, nearly a decade after the downtown Italian restaurant served its last meal). Fit a pasta into your lunch or dinner, then. The selections change enough to keep regulars engaged, but not so much they risk over-stimulation. I’ve yet to encounter anything I wouldn’t be happy to see again. Hearty suckling pig ragu drapes ribbons of paccheri, while chitarra, nutty with buckwheat flour, brings a meatless treat of roasted cauliflower, garlic and anchovy in every twirl of the fork. Quadrucci — square pillows filled with crab, cod and potato and brushed with lemon and butter — is another performance you are sad to see end (with a clean plate, of course).
Now and then, a middling dish escapes the kitchen. A dense chunk of pork belly with some undercooked fingerling potatoes is redeemed only by a few brushstrokes of pink apple butter on the plate. Salads sometimes taste like afterthoughts. One detail that never wavers here, though, is the service, sure and gracious no matter the meal or how busy the restaurant is.
Cheese and wine are almost always my preferred way to close a meal — anywhere — although professional obligations require me to dip into cakes, cookies and other confections. Centrolina gives me cause for pause, with a few simple desserts that bridge comfort with elegance. The sweet to be savored above all others is a clear cup of vanilla rice pudding on a cushion of sponge cake with diced seasonal fruit for color, sometimes butternut squash, other times persimmon. Some crackle comes courtesy of a sprinkle of crushed pistachios.
For those on the go, the market stocks comfort food in the form of eggplant parmesan, house-made meatballs, lunch sandwiches and breakfast muffins, their centers bright with a whole egg.
Those inclined to cook can find a small pantry of staples including vinegars, oils, beans, squash, baby leeks and garlic. (A full basket of scorzonera suggests that few shoppers are familiar with black salsify.)
Come to think of it, Centrolina’s signature is simply good taste.
The competition for customers within CityCenterDC — Del Frisco’s Double Eagle, DBGB, Mango Tree, Momofuku — is mostly of the imported variety. Centrolina, more friendly than flashy, makes a strong case for buying local.