Centre Park Grill
8808 Centre Park Dr.
Columbia, MD 21045

It’s a good beginning: Walking in, guests feel the light and airy vibe, with an open concept and an obviously fully-stocked bar. It is the area’s new restaurant — Centre Park Grill, housed in the space once home to Café de Paris, bordering Route 108, in Columbia.

Completely renovated by its new owners, who also own and operate The Mt. Airy Tavern, in Mount Airy, Centre Park Grill has a vast menu that ranges from salads, burgers, Cubano and Reuben sandwiches to crab cakes, steak, veal, chicken and rack of lamb, with a healthy assortment in between.

Also drawing a bar crowd, at least when we were there at happy hour, the selection includes many draft and craft beers, draft wines and more than 70 bourbon and whisky drinks, in addition to the normal bar options. Its Thursday night extended happy hour, with special pricing and plenty of room around the bar, appears to be a new, popular after-work meeting spot.

As we toured the facility with owner Jim DiChiara and General Manager Tony Guarino, it was obvious, even before we had a taste, that the food is fresh. “Nothing is prepackaged,” said DiChiara, “and 90% of what we make is made to order.”

The lettuce was cleaned and cooling in the walk-in refrigerator, with containers of the house-made dressings and sauces marked with dates not more than a day old.

“Everything is made in the restaurant: dressing, sauces, soups,” he said. “We have a plan in place, and we stick to the plan.”

Fritters, Oh My

To begin our tasting, we started with one of Centre Park Grill’s No. 1 best-sellers: corn and crab fritters. They were a colorful brown with yellow corn kernals peeking out. They were crispy, and there was sufficient crab to please the palate. The house-made remoulade was not overly sweet and was delicate enough to complement the fritter. It is clear why they are among the customers’ favorites.

As much as we enjoyed the fritters, however, the surprise was the black bean and corn salsa that garnished the plate. The corn kernals were sweet and fresh, the black beans tender, and the salsa was refreshing. No one taste overpowered the other, and yet, we kept going back for more with a mouth-tingling sigh.

The tuna tartare taco, again made with fresh sauce, shells and guacomole, are stuffed, according to the menu, and with “sushi grade Ahi tuna, capers, cucumber, jalapeno, sesame oil, wasabi sauce, sweet soy sauce, wonton taco shell.” They were amazingly light with a mild taste, despite the expectation of spicy ingredients. The wonton shell was crispy but was not overly seasoned, allowing it to house the tuna tartare and not become the main feature of the dish.

Once again, the theme was consistent: fresh tastes with each flavor complementing the whole, without overpowering one another.

Also, it is a must for any Marylander to do a taste test with the shrimp salad sandwich. And, so we did, much to our delight. The shrimp were plentiful, nicely cooked, and each one, contrary to its name, was a good size. In this sandwich, the shrimp was the shining star; it was not over-dressed, nor overly seasoned, and it had just the right hint of Old Bay sass.

Best for Last?

Of course, how can one do a restaurant review with tasting the dessert? And we were not disappointed. As a matter of fact, we thought the cranberry and walnut bread pudding with cinnamon creme anglais was one of the best we had ever eaten. Having been baked in a flatter-than-normal pan, it was cooked evenly and had a good texture. The cranberries were juicy with a bit of sweetness and there were enough walnuts to deserve a place in the dessert’s name. The creme anglais was a perfect finale to a warm, melt-in-your mouth bread pudding.

With a nice assortment of side dishes and such a varied menu, there is enough selection for a party of any size. Centre Park Grill does have an area for private parties of up to 45 people. The prices are reasonable, and there are daily specials on both food and drink.

From a salad to a sandwich to a ribeye steak, Centre Park Grill is a welcome addition to the list of fine restaurants in Howard County.