At Primitivo, the new Central City restaurant from Adolfo Garcia, almost everything tastes like it was kissed by fire.
A spacious dining room and bar area outfitted with distressed wood and rustic accents provides ample seating inside the cavernous space, but seats at the wraparound counter in the rear offer views of the main action. Here, chef Nick Martin and his team converge around the restaurant's powerhouse: a three-piece oven and open hearth where glowing embers are used to grill, smoke and roast most items on the menu. The dining room smells like roasting meat and a display of cured sausages adds a mouthwatering, porky aroma.
Garcia's tenure in the city is impressive, but until now his restaurants have had a geographical focus — Italian (Ancora), Latin American (RioMar), Southern (High Hat Cafe). What makes Primitivo unique is the way the chefs explore the nuanced flavors imbued by heat, smoke and fire.
Eggplant is roasted until the outside blisters, boasting flesh so creamy diners can scoop it out with a spoon. Charred lamb koftas are served on skewers, and juicy hunks of pork butt are smoked to falling-apart fork-tender.
Of the appetizers, fried duck wings confit should not be missed: coated in sweet, spicy and vinegary sauce, they are sprinkled with sunflower seeds and carry subtle heat. Crispy skin gives way to dark, rich meat that slides right off the bone.
Tender strips of smoked mullet join crunchy crudites atop a nest of creamy field pea puree that has the look and consistency of hummus. Lightly smoked drum is paired with wedges of fresh and pickled watermelon in a bright ceviche, and leftover juices can be added to a shot of mezcal, if desired.
An excellent grain salad made with bulgur and sorghum gets high marks and is a refreshing turn from some of the more standard varieties elsewhere. The earthy grains are tossed with mixed greens and herbs, thin shavings of radish, feta and a bright buttermilk dressing. The tangy sauce coats the leaves so that the ingredients come together without overpowering the crunch of the radishes or the bounce of the chewy grains.
It's hard to say what on the menu most embodies the flavor of smoke, but the beef coulotte is a good start. The lean, tender meat sits underneath a thin cap of fat that gets rendered crispy and dark and seeps into each bite, carrying distinct notes of campfire smoke.
While dining solo shouldn't be ruled out here, it's the larger, family-style portions that really impress, many of which are tough to tackle on one's own.
A whopping 26-ounce coal-grilled prime rib-eye comes beautifully charred on the outside, perfectly medium rare and juicy on the inside. The steak is marbled with fat in the way you'd expect a rib-eye to be, but not overwhelmingly so. A Flintstones-sized marrow bone teeters on top of the steak, the soft, buttery marrow adding flavor to an already excellent dish.
Roasted chicken is cooked until the skin is a deep, dark caramel color. Underneath the crispy, fatty golden bits lies juicy, almost silky meat. The bird sits atop a mix of wilted greens and tangy saffron-colored hunks of cornbread, the latter of which soak up the rich juices and drippings from the chicken.
Some of the accompanying dishes don't completely hit their stride. I wasn't impressed with a lukewarm smoked potato salad plated underneath the rib-eye steak; it lacked zing and smoke. Using naan as a bed for lamb koftas seems like a good idea, but if not eaten quickly the fluffy bread gets soggy quickly.
When it's time for dessert, it's hard not to stick with the fire theme and order s'mores: the classic combo of golden marshmallows sandwiched between graham crackers with a thick wedge of chocolate delivers a nostalgic treat sure to bring back memories of sitting around the campfire, where all you needed was the heat wafting off the remaining embers to cap off the night.