Over the past few years, as the Baltimore region's restaurant scene has grown, it's also gotten more specialized. When a new place opens, it often has a hook — a focus on noodles or comfort food or some other aspect of a particular cuisine.
Centre Park Grill, which opened in April on the first floor of a Columbia office building, takes the opposite tack. The menu isn't overly long but it is broad and familiar, including the kinds of American dishes that rose to popularity during the '80s and '90s: Think chicken-topped salads, seafood pastas and lava cake.
Though Centre Park's menu seems a touch retro, it is mostly well executed and served with care. And now that so many restaurants are narrowly focused, that broad and familiar approach feels fresh.
Scene & Decor Before opening, Centre Park's owners completely overhauled its space. The cozy, French-inspired decor of the previous tenant, Cafe de Paris, has disappeared in favor of simple wood furniture, muted colors and stone accents.
During our Thursday evening visit, the restaurant was filled with a mix of young families and couples on dates, with a small post-work crowd at the bar. Everyone seemed happy, though some table locations were better than others for those seeking a quiet date night atmosphere; with lots of wood but little fabric to soak up the sound, most of the space was loud.
Appetizers Three generous crab and corn fritters ($13) were cooked nicely, with an impressive crust on the outside and sweet, creamy centers. They arrived with spicy Cajun remoulade for dipping and a scoop of black bean and corn salsa.
Both were well seasoned and tasty, though the salsa felt less essential than the sauce. It also presented some logistical challenges; it kept falling off our forks.
Entrees Centre Park Grill's broad menu includes salads, sandwiches and burgers and a list of entrees that covers many bases. We opted for two of the more modern-sounding dishes — Wagyu skirt steak ($22) and grilled rosemary chicken ($19).
The meals followed the same path. Both proteins were skillfully cooked and dressed with well-executed and interesting sauces, but their side dishes needed work.
The skirt steak was seasoned beautifully, cooked just to medium rare and sliced thin, on an angle. The chunky chimichurri added an herbaceous, garlicky jolt to each bite. But a side of Brussels sprouts was severely underdone and a dish of sweet potatoes, while acceptable, lacked excitement.
Similarly, the generous portion of grilled chicken, sprinkled with rosemary, was cooked nicely and we liked the tender, fat stalks of asparagus. We also loved the chicken's thin, but rich, chorizo-studded sauce.
It was a sauce so good we'd put it on everything from fries to pasta. It should have been an ideal match for our side of fingerling potatoes; unfortunately, like the Brussels sprouts, they were tough and underdone, so they didn't soak up that gorgeous liquid.
Drinks Centre Park's wine, beer and cocktail selections are well rounded and neatly edited; the lists are long enough to be interesting but not overwhelming.
We started with a blueberry mojito ($10) that we liked, though it was on the sweet side, and a glass of nicely balanced, lively white sangria ($8).
Our meals paired well with glasses of Nobilo sauvignon blanc ($8), one of a handful of wines on tap, and Terrazas malbec ($9), both easy-drinking, approachable choices.
Dessert We finished our meal with a tall slice of salted caramel crunch cake ($8). The vanilla cake, layered with caramel and garnished with berries, was sweet and pretty. Though it was large, the cake was airy and lovely, so we finished on a light note.
Service During our visit, our waiter juggled a handful of tables, including a mix of older and younger diners, families with small children and couples on dates. He was a pro. With us, he demonstrated clear knowledge of the menu and a knack for timing; we watched as he anticipated the needs of kids at other tables and made sure everyone had what they needed.
That kind of service can tip the scales, turning an average dinner into something memorable. For us, it made undercooked vegetables seem like not such a big deal, and somehow it made those sauces taste even more fabulous.