Joe Immordino, who co-owns Acacia in Lawrenceville, says his latest venture, Centro Grille in Robbinsville, is “for locals, by locals.”
He and his partners live less than a mile from Town Center—the mixed-use development where Centro Grille is located—so the latter claim holds up. Though I didn’t check anyone’s ID, the restaurant does seem to attract plenty of locals, albeit mainly singles and couples of all ages rather than the families with kids Immordino said he set his sights on.
Open almost two years, Centro Grille has already outlived the last two restaurants to occupy this attractive, high-ceilinged space bright with palladium windows. By removing some low walls and glass dividers, the new owners have improved sight lines and further tilted toward a casual vibe with bare wood tables and a comfort-food menu.
Centro Grille draws a crowd with its lengthy happy hour (Monday through Friday, 3:30 to 7 pm), featuring tasty chicken meatballs, tacos and sliders ($3-$7). The main menu ranges widely, if not imaginatively, across crowd-pleasing comfort foods with a few forays into relative sophistication.
Fried calamari often come strewn with hot cherry peppers, but in a novel touch, Centro Grille fries the peppers along with the squid. Everything comes out crisp and crackly. Tossed with a sweet-and-sour glaze, it makes an excellent starter. Buffalo wings benefited from a hot sauce made, Immordino said, from dried chipotles, onions and garlic. Pan-fried chicken empanadas—courtesy of one of the kitchen’s Argentinean sous chefs—are flaky and fetchingly filled with ground chicken, raisins, three cheeses, peppers and onions. They come with a sprightly chimichurri sauce. Bacon-wrapped stuffed shrimp, a signature appetizer, were overcooked, bready and drowning in a treacly bourbon barbecue sauce. That dish could take a lesson from the simple, delicious grilled octopus on arugula in a fresh lemon vinaigrette.
Among entrées, the macadamia crust on pan-seared grouper was unaccountably bland, and mahi-mahi was simply trampled by an overaggressive Cajun spice coating. Both fish were slightly overcooked. So, too, was the chicken in the chicken parmigiana, which rode in on a bed of penne in a thin red sauce. A watery white wine sauce sank another pasta, orecchiette with sausage and broccoli rabe. The best pasta we tried were house-made ravioli filled with chanterelles, shiitakes and Portobellos.
Garlicky whole striped bass, a special, had irresistibly crisp crust with moist flesh. The best dish overall was wild boar osso buco—braised 24 hours in white wine, tomato sauce, garlic and herbs, then roasted and glazed in the reduced braising sauce.
Desserts are made in-house by pastry chef Belinda Hilario. Most satisfying were the pecan apple crisp and a chocolate mousse dome—moist chocolate cake at the center, covered by a globe of mousse and a Godiva chocolate shell. The lemon curd in the lemon tart was appropriately sour, but the graham-cracker crust was so hard it took a knife to cut through it.
After dinner, some customers filter back to the bar, which has become a bone fide pickup scene. That just might help Centro Grille survive, even without moms and pops with wee ones in tow.