Chances are, you’ll have to wait for a table at Central Provisions, if you can get one at all. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Forget Amazon or Toyota — business schools ought to teach efficiency through the example of Central Provisions.

The eclectic, Old Port small-plates restaurant has just shy of 50 full-service slots for diners. Forty-eight, to be precise, including bar seating and tight two- and four-top tables upstairs, along with several standing-height flat surfaces chef/owner Chris Gould calls “rails” in the bar downstairs. Crowding just four-dozen diners into the exposed brick rooms feels like an accomplishment.

Yet during the frothiest days of summer’s tourist season, through some dark species of physics-warping trickery, Central Provisions manages to feed upwards of 500 people a day.

“We close every year for two weeks at the beginning of January and take the notes we’ve made throughout the year on how the space could be utilized better,” Gould said. “We add some little nooks and crannies to store things, redo the floors, but in general it doesn’t change much. It looks very much the same as it did when we opened (in February 2014). But there’s no more space coming.”

Halibut Cheek Tempura is among the many small plates served at Central Provisions. Buy this Photo

Central Provisions’ remarkable ability to operate at peak capacity comes at a price, however. The restaurant famously takes no reservations — a policy Chris Gould and his spouse and business partner, Paige Gould, instituted about a year after they opened. No-shows and late parties translated to empty seats, and with dining room real estate at such a premium, they made the choice to move to a first-come, first-served system, with a technology-driven waiting list application to contact customers when a table becomes available.

If a table becomes available.

Twice over the past month, I added myself to that list (once early in the week and once on a weekend) and was told by a host (who must be sick of giving this speech) that my wait would likely extend beyond the three-to-four hours left in both nights’ dinner service.

One of these times, out of pure curiosity, I asked to be placed into the queue anyway and watched as my party of two went from 21st in line (!) to fourth before the kitchen shuttered for the night.

So I postponed, opting to wait to write about Central Provisions until shoulder season began its frosty fade-out. This time, my guest and I both planned to skip lunch and arrive for dinner long before sunset, at what a friend fondly calls “assisted living midnight.”

Within minutes, we were tearing apart slices of Standard Baking Company sourdough, eagerly spreading them with espresso-and-cocoa-nib butter, nubbly with chunks of toasted hazelnut and dunking our crusts into a savory, gelatin-stabilized sabayon of egg yolk, lemon and Riesling ($8).

While according to Chris Gould, the kitchen has made “at least 20 different versions of that dish,” tweaking it several times every year, it remains a fixture on the restaurant’s permanent menu, alongside dishes like bluefin tuna crudo with radish, shallot and mustard ($18) that a former critic from this paper raved about in a five-star review from 2014.

When I tried the 2019 version of that same tuna crudo on another recent visit, standing downstairs at one of the “rails,” I was wowed by the layering of sharpness with sweet, ductile slices of raw Maine tuna. It’s hard to argue with the logic of retaining more than a third of the menu for these Central Provisions standards, because for the most part, they’re fantastic.

I wasn’t quite as taken with the experience of eating my meal off what felt like a shelf installed next to someone’s cellar staircase, but in a pinch, when crowds are at their peak, it’ll do.

“There’s a unique difference in the experiences. It’s not by design, but upstairs you get to sit, and it has become more of a refined experience,” Chris Gould said. “Downstairs tends to be people popping in for a snack, although some people do have full meals down there.”

Indeed, the lower level of Central Provisions gestures towards an Iberian-style, vertical mode of drinking and snacking that the Goulds witnessed on their honeymoon in Spain. “Lots of people said it wouldn’t work, that people wouldn’t do it here. But they do,” Chris Gould, a native Mainer, said.

The easy appeal of the restaurant’s wine list has a lot to do with why. Spanning New and Old World styles, with pricey bottles and pours of white, red, rosé and orange wines that average $12 a glass, this list has something for everyone. And miraculously, something that cozies up nicely with nearly every one of the restaurant’s more than two dozen small plates.

Mixing and matching dishes from the ultra-ecumenical menu, on the other hand, can be a challenge. My dinner guest and I wondered aloud how things might turn out if we ordered that evening’s sticky, hoisin-painted Peking duck for two ($45) alongside a very French plate of caramelized sheep’s cheese, prickling with Espelette pepper and tangy from drizzles of quince saba ($12), and maybe the North Spore mushroom fricassée on a bruise-colored, dried-out polenta cake flavored with pig’s blood ($22).

“Uhh…maybe not,” our server counseled.

The kitchen paces dishes on-the-fly according to what tables order. Buy this Photo

What she did not tell us (and what I have never heard before while dining at Central Provisions) is that despite the restaurant’s up-front cautions that “dishes come out when they’re ready,” there is actually a methodical, on-the-fly course-pacing that happens when tickets hit the kitchen.

“We train servers to steer people to get something from the raw section, cold, hot,” Chris Gould explained. “It’s like taking a tasting menu at a Michelin-style place and opening it up. Then we’ll organize it so it makes sense. We get the ticket and fire accordingly.”

Partly, that’s to retain harmony across a meal, and partly because Central Provisions’ tiny tables wouldn’t accommodate the simultaneous arrival of the three-to-four dishes per diner that servers recommend.

And the kitchen, led by chef de cuisine Edward Moreau, does course out meals well, scheduling delightful, crunchy-shelled cod cheek tempura with house-made kosho that lacerates with talons of capsaicin and citrus peel ($16) long after the eye-popping tangy-bitter crunch of radicchio, candied walnuts and cider vinegar reduction in the local apple salad ($12).

Certain dishes also feel like born spacers, slotting into a meal wherever a natural break is not obvious. One, the fried cauliflower ($14) with mint, chickpeas and matchstick apples is another Central Provisions classic that has been around since I first visited the restaurant four years ago. Back then, I fell hard for its Levantine spice blend — a local reimagination of ras el hanout, here made with buzzy, numbing grains of paradise, ground rose hips and dried anise hyssop that the Goulds harvest from their own home garden. I loved it so much that I attempted to reverse engineer it for Thanksgiving in 2015.

Now, I couldn’t wait for my dinner guest, a fellow food writer, to try it. “Wait a minute,” she said, levering torn mint leaves from the top layer to peek underneath. “Isn’t there supposed to be cauliflower in this?” It was there, but barely. Amid an abundance of fork-tender chickpeas, we found just two tiny florets in the dish.

This was not the evening’s only misfire. Our final dish, a dessert of oven-roasted fig halves served in a savory chocolate pâte brisée crust ($10) was upended by caustic tartness from a citric-acid-and-lime-enriched crème fraîche. With flavors that teetered too close to those of spoiled dairy, it overwhelmed the dessert.

Suckling pig is a highlight of the menu, the tender pulled pork capped with salted, plancha-crisped skin served on a glossy purée of local apples caramelized in butter, then deglazed with apple cider vinegar. Buy this Photo

All the stranger, considering that acid balance is normally one of Central Provisions’ culinary superpowers. Nowhere is it more in evidence than in the suckling pig, another of the restaurant’s evergreen menu items, where a glossy purée of local apples caramelized in butter, then deglazed with apple cider vinegar makes a luxurious nest for rectangles of tender pulled pork capped with salted, plancha-crisped skin ($16).

The dish resembles pork belly, but its tender shreds of meat reveal a true New Englander’s commitment to the ethos of “waste-not, want-not”— each slice of the terrine-like pressé is refashioned from meat taken from the entire, overnight-roasted piglet. It is balanced, autumnal and wholly unsacrificing in its efficiency.

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of two 2018 Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.

Contact him at: [email protected]
Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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