361 Forest Ave. #103
Laguna Beach, CA 92651
As it gets closer to my birthday, we get a lot busier trying out new restaurants. This trip to one of our favorite coastal towns was perpetrated at a birthday party for my good friend Joe. I had not seen my old roommate Rob for close to a year, and learned that he had moved down to Laguna with his fiance, Bre. He mentioned that we must have dinner with them at one of their favorite spots, Central.
Central is a Coastal Peruvian restaurant, which of course means it is seafood driven, but there's so much more to it than that. Peruvian fare has been described by New York Times Food Critic, Eric Asimov as being one of the worlds most important cuisines, and a great example of food fusion, due to Peru's multicultural makeup. Influences come from the immigrants that came to this South American country from Europe, West Africa, and Asia, and who mixed their cuisines with the indigenous population of Peru, including the Incas. The result is a unique kind of food, but one that I've always been rather fond of. I was especially excited because Rob and Bre talked so highly of this restaurant, and Rob is not always so easy to please when it comes to food.
Central just had their one year anniversary, which is a big milestone in the restaurant business. Located in the old Sundried Tomato space, and sharing the same shopping center as Laguna Wine and the Laguna Beach Visitors Center, this restaurant is kind of tucked away from the crowds, but if you are still lost, just look for the iconic red English phone booth out front, and you'll know you're close. Like a lot of restaurants in their first year, there has been some turnover here, and when we were here in early June, they had just lost their chef, but were confident that their sous chef, who had been at Club 33 at Disneyland, could take over. Not sure how it all played out for them, but looking at the menu online, it looks very similar to the menu when were here just over a month ago.
We arrived at Central at just before 6 pm on a Thursday evening. Laguna had not been hit with a ton of tourists, so it was relatively easy finding parking before the hoards of Pageant of the Masters and Sawdust Festival attendees start crowding this small town. I never came here when this was Sundried Tomato, so I'm not sure how much has changed, but I really enjoyed the atmosphere here. Lots exposed wood, cool, hip music, and a small ten seat bar dominate the space. There's about ten or so tables inside, with a few more outside on their patio, near the fountain. We were finally settled in to see if this place matched Rob's hype for it.
We were patiently waiting for Rob's much better half to arrive from work, so we started with a round of drinks while catching up. Not sure if Peru actually has a national cocktail, but when I typed that into Google, the Pisco Sour ($12) was the first thing listed. The base of this beverage is pisco, a white brandy made with muscat grapes, and joined in the glass by egg whites, fresh lime juice, simple syrup, and angostura bitters. This was a very frothy drink, with a unique taste. The sour definitely came through, and I did get the lime, but not much in the way of the syrup. Much better was Rob's selection, Cristal ($6), which is Peru's number one selling beer. This lager went down smooth, with a very mild taste to it. Not too hoppy, and light. I'd get this on my next visit here.
Just as our appetizers arrived, so did Bre. We had ordered two appetizers to start, the first of which was this Pulpo a la Parilla ($17). I was actually surprised that they wanted to order this grilled octopus starter, but I've always been a big fan of octopus, so I was all for it. The wonderfully done octopus was paired with onions and grapefruit, an aji verde, romesco sauce, and topped off with an organic fried egg. The romesco sauce here was top notch and helped elevate this appetizer to greater heights than it would have attained without it. The fried egg could have been cooked a little less, so the runny yolk could cover the delicious octopus, but it was still delicious. I was trying to play it cool by not favoring this appetizer, but I wanted one all to myself.
A little less to my liking were these Lamb Empanadas ($13). The lamb inside of these was very good, tender with a good seasoning to it, but the empanada shell was a little too heavy and kind of on the dry side. I was hoping that the aji agrodulce sauce, which is like a sweet and sour sauce would have helped, but it kind of fell flat in adding anything to these empanadas.
Rob and Bre also got this oddly named Tomato Tower ($14) before our entrees made their way out. This gets a lot of love from people on Yelp, and from Bre and Rob. This is basically the Peruvian version of a Caprese, with it's heirloom tomatoes, burrata cheese, opal basil, balsamic, and the only difference I could detect from across the table was the addition of the zucchini carpaccio. Maybe because of the new chef here, the presentation of this salad is different than both Rob and Bre remember it, and the pictures on Yelp definitely show a different looking version of this. This is a more spread out version, instead of being more vertical, which did not wow Rob and Bre like the times they had this before. Not bad, but a different preparation than they were used to, and one that was a little more challenging to get all the elements into one bite.
Since it was my birthday in a matter of hours, I went big at Central by ordering this Braised Lamb Shank ($32). I don't eat lamb nearly enough, and this version has got me hooked again. This good sized lamb shank was joined by peruano beans, crispy kale, sarza criolla, which is a salsa made up of onions and other items, a cilantro gremolata, and finally all tied together by chicha de hora jus, which from what I can at least guess by looking online is a Peruvian corn beer, but I might be wrong about that. Whatever it was, it helped make this dish a winner. The lamb was tender, without the gaminess that sometimes comes with ordering lamb. There could have been more sauce here, but the sauce that was present was very good, and added to this mutton. The beans and onion salsa helped round this dish out perfectly. A very good meal to start out my birthday week.
When most people think of Peruvian cuisine, they almost always mention the most famous Peruvian dish of them all, the Lomo Saltado ($29). Of course Central has their own version of this dish, and Katie, Rob and Bre all got this as their entree on this night. This dish, which was inspired by Chinese immigrants in Peru, is basically a stir fry dish with sliced filet mignon, cherry tomatoes, red onions, and french fries, all served on a bed of rice. Katie expected the filet to be a little more tender than it was, and she would have liked there to be more sauce and onions included with this. She did praise the fries though, and thought they were a highlight of this dish.
We selected two desserts to share between the four of us, the best of the two by far was this Banana Empanda ($8). The outer shell was a little tough to get through, but I loved the creamy banana inside, which went well with the smear of Nutella and the ice cream. Yes, they needed a little more ice cream added on here, but a very satisfying dessert.
I was not as excited about this Mango Cheesecake ($8) as I was about the banana empanada. I must admit that I'm not really a big fan of mango or cheesecake, but none of my table mates were that impressed by this dessert ether. The mango flavor was muted, and only present in the cut up mango placed on top of this, and the cheesecake underneath was only average. I did enjoy the cracker crust, but would much rather have ordered an extra banana empanada.
It seems to me that Central is kind of at a crossroads, and still trying to find some stability with their head chef position. This is definitely not unheard of in the restaurant business, but you want the food to be served in a consistent manner from visit to visit. If they get some stability in the kitchen, the skies the limit for Central. They have a good base menu, and I look forward to seeing where it goes from here. The lamb, octopus starter, and the banana empanada were standouts, but other items need some work. Service on this evening was excellent, and we were never in need of anything, and felt right at home. The restaurant can get a little loud, especially near the end of our stay when they were doing a booming business. Peruvian cuisine is due for a big breakout in the US, and we're looking forward to experiencing it at Central.
Out of five pieces of chalk, (because the oldest college in the Americas, the University of San Marcos, was founded in Peru in 1551, and I'm sure being that old of an institution, the professors here have used lots of chalk), five being best to zero being worst, Central gets 3.5 pieces of chalk.
For more information about Central, head to their website here: http://centralcoastalperuvian.com/