A Rising Star: Dinner at Central Cafe Restaurant in Saint Johnsbury| 07.15.21
A star in downtown St Johnsbury is tucked into what appears to be a small coffee house. Elegant design, with a bit of tongue in cheek humor has made the Central Café coffee shop and restaurant in Saint Johnsbury, VT a regular stop for those living and working in the downtown area.
But their dinner service is quickly transforming this space into a restaurant destination!
Beautiful photos of inventive culinary experiments caught my eye this past winter. And though I couldn’t wait to try Central Café’s dinner service, restrictions through the winter and my own schedule kept that from happening.
We finally were able to make a reservation and escape for an adult dinner experience in St. Johnsbury that included dinner at the Central Café.
At first the smaller menu seemed to offer entrees without much variation, a few pasta dishes and a Halibut entrée were right up my alley, but my husband isn’t much of a pasta eater so we decided we’d order each of the appetizers. We would soon find out that our initial assumption was incorrect.
We ordered a scallop dish, ahi tuna, and mussels. What was brought to our table blew us away!
The Space at Central Cafe
Before I dive into the menu, I must first describe the atmosphere. Walking into the Central Café has a metropolitan feel. A blend of modern style and industrial chic (which seems to be a trend with newer restaurants in older store fronts and warehouses in the NEK) offer a bright, open feel with a firm grounding. A long communal table in the center of the space offers great dining opportunities for big parties, gatherings, or individuals looking for that “bar” or “counter” style experience when having morning coffee or enjoying a meal alone.
But what really caught my eye were the cubbies along the wall. Where most restaurants would have booths, the Central Café has created a cultural experience for diners. Small cubby spaces have been created by half walls, and inside of these spaces a low table surrounded by floor cushions invites people to take off their shoes and dine in Asian style.
Now, we were not seated in one of these cubbies, to my disappointment as I am all about the experience – but instead were seated at one of the tables but the store front windows.
Comfortable chairs, a bright space, with an engaging view of downtown set the tone for the meal that would be set before us.
Keeping it light, the restaurant has brought in local folk art including a funny display of local historic photos with wonderful chat bubbles to entertain readers. And a collection of fun artwork makes the bathroom an experience of its own.
The Menu at Central Café Restaurant in Saint Johsbury, VT
When our collection of appetizers arrived the photographer in me was delighted. Art as food filled our table, and the smell was fantastic.
My first bite was from the scallop dish. Two perfectly seared scallops were served with an avocado puree. To start with, I was a interested in the pairing. Though avocado is light, it has a very powerful flavor and texture. I wasn’t sure how the very delicate flavor of scallops would hold up. The treatment of the avocado, first pureed and then almost whipped to offer a more airy texture than a sauce, and flavored with an accompanying maple balsamic vinaigrette, changed the avocado into something entirely different flavor wise. A nice sear on the scallops, and each bite topped with the accompanying puree and vinaigrette made this scallop dish one of the best things I have ever eaten.
I pulled myself away from the scallops (at that moment I was wishing I had just ordered multiple plates of them) to try the Tuna dish beautifully arranged next to me.
Fresh tuna topped a shaped cake of avocado over thinly sliced cucumbers and radish. Summer on a plate, the freshness of this dish made it a perfect meal starter.
What I found refreshing about the presentation was the combination of textures. Raw ahi tuna is often served with other soft textures – avocado, greens, or it’s marinated in poke dishes and served with seaweed salad, or maybe on a chip of some sort. This dish instead used fresh cut, crunch vegetables as the contrast giving the needed crunch while adding sweet fresh flavors.
Another addition to this dish that was unexpected was again the ‘sauce’ served on the plate and topping the tune. This creamy garlic dressing was absolutely divine – and added so much flavor to the tuna.
Having thoroughly investigated the tuna dish, and the different ways to pair the tuna with its accompanying ingredients, we moved on to the mussel dish.
Mussels served in a garlic butter, white wine sauce is a very standard dish that is always a table pleaser full of flavor while remaining light enough to leave room for entrees. But, I was again taken by surprise with the flavor profile. Large chunks of garlic were left in the broth, and so were present in each shell and each bite of mussel – but they were fully cooked and so were soft and melted in your mouth.
After taking a bite, a slow heat from red pepper flakes provided a layered effect that was pleasantly unexpected. And as I am not a fan of spicy food, the even handed amount of pepper flake provided flavor without being overpowering or too hot for my Vermont palate.
We were incredibly impressed with what we had tried, and though were well on our way to full, we were delighted when the chef sent over the Halibut for us to try.
While I am a fan of fish, my husband typically stays away from white fish. He prefers the more dense textures of tuna and swordfish. But, this dish was an exception to his fish preferences.
The halibut fillet was served over a pureed potato and came with a small pitcher of citrus butter. The fillet was cut thick and lightly seared offering a robust texture. The halibut was well seasoned and had a great flavor on its own. A quick taste of the potato puree on its own found it satisfying – creamy on the tongue with plenty of garlic and salt (and butter). But once we poured the citrus butter over the fish and potato, we were hooked.
Eating all three elements together once again changed the flavor of the dish completely. The potato and butter sauce added creaminess to the firm fish giving each bite a velvety texture. The layered flavors – earthy starch, light protein, salt, light butter, and bright citrus all came through one after the other with the citrus offering the end notes.
We finished our meal with strawberry shortcake. The biscuit was made in house by the pastry chef that handles the breads and pastries for the café’s breakfast and lunch hours as well. A wonderful, sweet, and light ending to our meal rounded out the experience.
The Central Café offers beer and wine during dinner service, which we paired with our meal. They also offer a variety of coffee options which we were happy for at the end of the night. Felling incredibly full, a rich coffee with our desert was a great pick-me-up.
Overall, I would recommend the Central Café restaurant in Saint Johnsbury to anyone that enjoys culinary experiences. The flavors are fantastic. The techniques, pairings, and preparations are unique, fun and inventive. The presentation is beautiful. But the overall atmosphere is light, fun, and relaxing. This offers a high end dining experience that a younger crowd can enjoy.
Lastly, I have to mention Rome – the chef. We were lucky enough to have the opportunity to chat with him. Rome is from the Philippines. He came to the US first to work in the White Mountains, then to work in St. Johnsbury at another local restaurant, and then decided to open his own place. He told us that one thing he noticed in rural Vermont was that there is no night life. That for the younger crowd, after work hours, there are few places to go.
He wanted to bring that atmosphere to St. Johnsbury. Not a trained chef, he is creating as he goes and he’s loving it. Work shortages, the food delivery situation (both plaguing all of our restaurants) and the continued effects of the pandemic have meant that he is short staffed, has to alter his menu often based on what he can get delivered, and has to keep dinner service to a few days a week. But he is doing it, and he has created a pretty magical experience in downtown St. Jay.