What the menu of the new Lebanese restaurant Central Café and Bakery calls "rotisserie chicken" isn't the ubiquitous pirouetting poultry of grocery stores and chain restaurants. Its skin isn't the lovely mahogany brown of a properly roasted chicken but red with spice and singed black here and there. If it isn't already obvious enough, the first bite of that crisp skin will make it clear: This chicken has been grilled — and beautifully so.
You can order either a whole chicken or a half. Two pieces, the breast and the leg/thigh, constitute a half. Your server will advise you (or should) that the chicken takes longer to cook than the other entrées do. Your server isn't exaggerating. I waited roughly a half-hour for mine.
No big deal: Order an appetizer to tide you over. The hummus and baba gannoujh are excellent choices. The hummus is smooth and thick, its rich tahini flavor cut with a touch of heat. The baba gannoujh is by its eggplant-based nature more chunky than smooth, its flavor lightly acidic. In both cases, what makes the dish isn't the dip but the dipping vehicle: the restaurant's freshly baked pita bread. These are oblong rather than round and, while light, have a more substantial body than commercially produced pita. If you're fortunate enough to snag a piece right out of the oven, it is delicious even without any accompaniment.
The epinard, another appetizer, is described on the menu as a spinach and cheese pie. What arrives at your table looks like nothing so much as a miniature pizza, a very thin crust topped with cooked spinach underneath melted mozzarella cheese: a satisfying, if not sensational, starter.
When the chicken is ready, the temptation to forgo fork and knife and rip it to shreds with your fingers is strong. Resist: This bird is very hot. The flavor is remarkable, chicken's natural essence infused with the char of the grill, a strong note of garlic and the tartness of lemon or, more likely, the lemon-like flavor of sumac. On the side is a small dish of garlic sauce for added pop. Not that the chicken needs it.
The chicken is served with your choice of rice or spicy potatoes (as are the other entrées). The potatoes range from good to very good, depending on a particular batch. The first time I had them, they were just about perfect, crisp on the outside and tender inside; on another visit they were slightly undercooked. The heat level will fall onto the mild-to-medium range of most palates. Also on the side is fatoush, a simple salad of lettuce, tomato, onion and cucumber with a tart dressing and, acting as a sort of crouton, pieces of fried pita. A house salad — the same basic salad, minus the pita — is also available.
Central Café opened late last year just north of the intersection of Maryland and Euclid avenues in the Central West End, next door to Golden Grocer. It is a small and attractive space, with seating for about 30 and clean, modern décor. Along one wall is a counter displaying the restaurant's baked goods. On shelves behind the counter are hookahs and tobacco for them, and — fair warning — on one visit a couple of customers were smoking inside the restaurant while I ate.
The restaurant is a family endeavor. Owner Michael Jaber alternates between the front and back of house, while his daughters work out front; other family members are among the kitchen staff. The vibe is very friendly. Jaber walks the floor often, checking up on diners, answering questions, pointing out details about dishes.
Besides the rotisserie chicken, the entrées include both beef and chicken shawarma. I tried the former: bite-size (and slightly larger) pieces of beef cut from the meat spinning on the traditional vertical shawarma grill. The beef had the good chew that you associate with, say, hanger steak, its natural flavor accented with tart sumac.
Beef, chicken and kafta (a ground-beef preparation with a texture somewhere between meat loaf and sausage) kebabs are available. The chicken kebab entrée delivers several generous hunks of browned bird. The garlic sauce that accompanies the rotisserie chicken is served with both the shawarma and the kebab dishes. It provides an especially welcome accent to the kebabs.
Sandwiches are prepared in the restaurant's pita bread and grilled panini-style. Various meats are available — chicken or beef shawarma, beef kebab, kafta, a Lebanese beef sausage called makanek — as are vegetarian options such as falafel. (I would order the falafel as an appetizer, though, not in sandwich form. The falafel in my sandwich was falling apart and seemed more like a condiment than the heart of the sandwich.) Each sandwich is topped with a generous handful of pickles.
Central Café doesn't serve alcohol. There are fruit smoothies. I can't remember the last time I ordered a smoothie — does a milk shake count? — so I'm not the best judge of these, but the mango variety was tasty and, crucially, not too sweet.
The menu lists a variety of baked goods. On my visits, however, the selection was limited almost exclusively to baklava. It is pretty good baklava, though — again, not overly sweet, with pleasantly nutty undertones. I tried the cashew baklava. Walnut and pistachio are also available, though the latter (my first choice) was sold out.
If you have a sweet tooth, I recommend trying one of Central Café's baked goods on a separate occasion rather than after lunch or dinner — especially if you order the rotisserie chicken. Any plans you had to save room for dessert will dissipate after the first smoky, garlicky, tangy bite.