It might seem weird to say the hot new neighborhood lunch spot is a hospital cafeteria, but that's the case for Lexingtonians who find themselves near Baptist Health Lexington, formerly Central Baptist Hospital.
Let's be clear: Café Central, as it is officially known, is a hospital cafeteria. It's open to the public, but most of the clientele are employees — many wearing scrubs, all with ID badges — or patients' families, and the food pales next to full-service fine-dining establishments. Still, there are wonderfully surprising offerings — a side of quinoa salad with blood oranges and mint, anyone? — that make Café Central a worthy consideration for lunch if you find yourself at or near the hospital on Nicholasville Road.
If you were to be plunked down in the dining area unaware that you were in a hospital, you might think you were in a nicely appointed hotel. Renovated last year, the large, high-ceilinged cafeteria, on the second floor between buildings D and E, is awash in tasteful neutral tones. There are banquettes and tables and even a patio. This being a hospital, everything is sparkling clean.
Food service is standard cafeteria self-service. There are stations for a featured "comfort" entrée (usually a meat and veg), a grill (typical burger, etc., fare), pizza (slices under a warming lamp), a deli, and refrigerated pre-made offerings.
Interestingly, there's also an "exhibition" station that, depending on the day, might have a chef carving meat to order or cooking up a custom pasta dish. Then there's a salad bar, where a worker tosses a salad as you tell her what to put in it.
(If all this sounds familiar, such as what you would have found at Morrison's cafeteria, that's because a spin-off company of the defunct chain manages Café Central.)
The day's menu is displayed on a video monitor above each station. Worth noting is that nutritional information is clearly labeled on each menu item.
As with most cafeterias, the selections change often so you might not find what I did on my three visits.
The first station upon entering Café Central is the salad bar. Choose from a selection of featured salads, or custom order what you want. A worker will add the ingredients in a bowl, dress it, toss it and present it to you on a plate. The chipotle chicken salad had a smoky spice from the meat's chile seasoning and was well complemented by crispy tortilla strips. Mine came slightly overdressed, so you might ask to go easy there. A companion's Asian chicken salad had a lovely sesame flavor and got a nice crunch from water chestnuts.
The lowly lunch staple of the chicken salad sandwich can be found with a couple of twists at the deli. One day, it had fresh dill; another, it had cilantro and toasted almonds. Order it on whatever bread you like, including carb-saving sandwich "thins." This time of year, skip the pale tomatoes.
A featured entrée, tilapia almondine, was moist and flaky, but the coating had more bread than the nutty almonds that would have made the dish sing. A side of stewed tomatoes took what were probably canned veggies and made them sweet and delicious with careful seasoning and cooking. Another side, sesame broccoli and carrots, had a great crunch. A different visit's feature, crab cakes, was unremarkable except for a delicate panko breading; the side of macaroni and cheese also was uninspiring and a little pasty.
Not many restaurants that have Café Central's captive audience of workplace denizens would even think about having a chef carve roast beef for you. The meat here was nicely sliced, if a little dry, and was presented in a huge portion. A side of baby potatoes that probably came from a can were lifted by being marinated in the au jus.
All desserts at Café Central are pre-made. Try the banana pudding, which cleverly substitutes chunks of banana bread for vanilla wafers; or the deceptively tasty "cake parfait," what amounts to crumbled yellow cake layered with whipped cream. Avoid the coconut cream pie, though, unless you relish the taste of tanning lotion clinging to your tongue.
If you plan to visit Café Central, go on a weekday lunch. Offerings at dinner and on weekends are reduced and focus on unremarkable grab-and-go items.
One final note: Café Central is astonishingly inexpensive, about $7 a person, including a drink and dessert.