Looks like there is life after India Joze after all. The spacious Center Street Grill makes a terrific design statement. Already attracting a lunch and dinner following, this spot packs even bigger visual punch at night — when the glowing ochre and terra cotta walls provide a bold hit of sophistication. Huge abstract paintings, creatively-placed track spotlighting, and acres of well-tended plants make it one of the nicest interiors in downtown Santa Cruz. And let me praise the care taken by the management not to cultivate a generic look. Plenty of small touches make Center Street Grill seductive. Good-looking polished wood furniture, table lamps, velvet curtains framing doorways, even intelligently-placed mirrors and custom grillework all work to maintain a sense of dining identity and intimacy — no small feat in this over-sized restaurant. Right, Christina. But how is the food? Read on. The newly re-conceived Center Street Grill offers dinners to pacify the tastebuds, and pamper the pocketbook.
Got all that?
I admit, I was sceptical about the sheer all-over-the-mapness of the menu when I first saw it. My dinner companion, Ceil, a Center St. Grill habitué, talked me down. She’s personally cut a substantial swath through the long menu, which includes crab cakes, nachos, caesar salad, ahi tuna, pastrami, various pastas, pizzas and two-fisted steaks entrees as well. Yes, the term “ecumenical cuisine” comes to mind.
Last week Ceil ordered baby back ribs ($14.95) — not quite what I’d expected, but it turned out she knew what she was doing. I gravitated toward the lamb shank braised in red wine ($15.95). Purists are going to raise their eyebrows, but entrees here come with two choices of side dish. Ceil went for cole slaw (a big “yes”) and green beans (a “no”) — I chose Yukon gold mashed potatoes and ratatouille. My entire meal — accompanied nicely by a glass of Cinnabar’s trusty Mercury Rising ($8) was delicious. The kind of delicious where you can’t stop eating even though you know you have passed “full” a long time ago.
Our opening salads were fresh and engaging, not the usual, perfunctory mound of generic greens. Baby romaine, walnuts, arugula, cherry tomatoes and a well-balanced vinaigrette started things off.
Succulent and yes, shamelessly falling off the bone, my lamb was lovely. Just as good was the ratatouille, loaded with fat chunks of eggplant, tomato and squashes in a complexly seasoned olive oil and tomato sauce. Ceil insisted that I try the ribs. No, it’s not a designer item, but this dish was yeah-baby robust, tender, full of intense pork flavor and large enough for two men, or one director of redevelopment to dine on happily. I licked my fingers without apology.
Not content to simply dine well, we decided to dessert well too, and polished off a slice of housemade New York-style (and it really was) cheese cake.
My only issue with our meal at Center Street Grill involves our extremely eager young waiter. He must have clocked a new record for iterations of “you guys” and “no problem, guys.” So I squinted a little. And if you haven’t tried this place for dinner, you’ve missed the full impact of its attractive decor. If you sit in one of the pretty, small, side rooms you will be able to have a quiet conversation. If you want a bit more action, you can sit at the wine bar in the main room. Given the various interlocking spaces, Center Street looks perfect for large parties and special catered groups. 1001 Center Street, Santa Cruz – 831/423-4745.