Although it may seem cliché, Jonathan Imes' love for cooking began when he was watching his grandmother cook and his mother bake. His childhood was filled with freshly baked cookies and pies and fond memories of learning how to cook from these two influential women in his life. As he grew up, he began cooking in Newport restaurants. Jonathan is now the new Executive Chef at Centro Restaurant and Lounge. We talked about how he is sprucing up the menu, his favorite seafood and what he cooks for himself at home.
Now that you are holding the creative reigns at Centro, will the menu change much?
I plan to stay true to the restaurant’s Italian roots while introducing more Mediterranean-influenced dishes. I also want to keep the food light while still providing bold flavors. Geographically we are in the best area to showcase fresh seafood. Our menu at Centro will continue to do so.
Are there menu items Centro lovers can be assured will not change?
We will keep certain staples like our house-made ravioli and the popular eggplant-ricotta appetizer that is made with thinly sliced fresh eggplant lightly breaded with flour, egg and panko breadcrumbs. We flash fry the breaded slices, let them cool and then fold them around a filling of Grana Padano and fresh ricotta cheeses. We serve this over a small bed of our tomato-basil sauce and garnish with a touch of arugula pesto. We’ll also continue to make our fresh pizza dough daily.
What is a must try item that we can expect from the new menu?
The Balsamic-Lacquered Salmon. It’s a fresh filet, basted with a balsamic reduction, pan-roasted, then plated with warm lentils and beets, sautéed spinach, a light vinegar jus and crispy onions. This is a very light entree, but with punches of bold flavors throughout.
Do you have a favorite seafood that you love to cook with?
I like the versatility of fresh sea scallops. They are a great canvas with which you can do so much creatively. I like to pan-sear sea scallops in olive oil over high heat then add a little butter and fresh herbs to the pan. Then I flip them and spoon the butter over the scallops to baste them as they finish cooking. From there they're great served with some grilled polenta and just a bit of sun-dried tomato pesto.
Do you find your menu is constrained creatively being located in a hotel?
There are certain expectations that guests tend to have which somewhat limits the twist we as chefs might want to add to simpler items. However, with great ingredients, simple can often translate to exactly what a particular guest is looking for. Even though our menu is pretty simple in general, I find the locals seem to be more adventurous with their menu choices (Steamed Mussels, Cioppino) and the hotel guests tend to more often order things like the Warm Spinach Salad and the Chicken Parmesan, which are both great, but in comparison are maybe some of the less innovative items on the menu.
What is your favorite Italian-influenced menu item?
Fresh pasta pappardelle in particular. I love the texture and bite of fresh pasta. In the ‘80s I worked at ‘Puerini’s, a wonderful Italian restaurant in Newport. Dan and Marie Puerini introduced me to fresh pasta made daily and many imported Italian ingredients before the Italian craze hit the US food world.
What is the perfect meal at Centro from beginning to end? Start with our Meatball appetizer made with beef and pork, warmed in a tomato-basil sauce. Our quick-fried calamari is another great starter. Move on to the Pappardelle with mushrooms or the Seared Sea Scallops with fregola (toasted Italian cous-cous). For dessert, the Warm Bread Pudding with wine-soaked dried cherries and Callebaut chocolate.
When you are not cooking for others at the restaurant, what do you cook for yourself?
A simple herb roasted whole chicken, then I usually make a hearty soup with the leftovers. I also often cook things that I miss from my time in Los Angeles [such as] shrimp tacos with fresh tortillas.
If you have a night off, where can we expect to find you?
XO Cafe, New Rivers, Blaze on Hope Street, Public Kitchen & Bar and East Side Pockets for my occasional falafel fix. Geoff’s for a great corned beef sandwich; I really miss Neath’s in Providence and Pronto in Newport.
1 W Exchange Street, 228-6802