Thursday, December 2, 2010

Pho Boston

No, I wasn't in Boston on business (:<). Pho Boston is actually in West Hartford, in the plaza on New Britain Avenue that sits on the Hartford/West Hartford line (the address is actually on Shield Street). My Italian-American co-worker suggested it as a less-crowded alternative to Pho 501 in East Hartford and we went for lunch there on Tuesday.

That area - the Elmwood section of West Hartford and the Foster Heights section of Hartford - was once home to a very large Irish-American community. Like many Irish neighborhoods, it had a storied political history, mostly (if not entirely) because Forster Heights was home to Eleanor Kennelly. If the name Kennelly is vaguely familiar, it is probably because Eleanor's son, Jim, became Speaker of the Connecticut General Assembly, her daughter-in-law Barbara went off to Congress and ran for Governor, and her grandson John served on the Hartford City Council.

Mrs. Kennelly, however, was a formidable and extraordinary woman in her own right, and not only because she was in politics at a time when that was very rare for a woman. By all accounts, she was a determined campaigner, a master (actually mistress) at cultivating her political base by meeting the needs of her constituents, and a leader capable of inspiring fierce loyalty from her supporters.

Indeed, I am told that during a particular Presidential primary the legendary John M. Bailey, a confidant of President Kennedy and national powerbroker extraordinaire, decided that Connecticut Democrats would be backing a particular candidate. And so they did; except in a single precinct in the City of Hartford - Foster Heights. Mrs. Kennelly, you see, was backing a different candidate for President and so her neighborhood voted overwhelmingly for her candidate instead of the mighty John Bailey's.

What makes that story particularly interesting was that Mr. Bailey's daughter, Barbara, was married to Mrs. Kennelly's son, James. You can imagine what the Bailey/Kennelly holidays were like that year!

Both times and neighborhoods change, of course, and neither Elmwood nor Foster Heights has much of an Irish population these days. In fact, Elmwood now has a substantial Asian population and Pho Boston and the A Dong Market (in the same plaza) are cornerstones of that new community.

My co-worker suggested we start with some springrolls which was just fine with me. Pho Boston has several different types of springrolls and we decided to try a pair of the goi cuon ($3.75) (#2 on the menu), which consisted of mint, vermicelli, shredded pork, and shrimp. The rolls were large, but I have to say I was not all that impressed as I thought my roll lacked flavor.

I am not a big fan of pho, so I opted for the canh chua ga; i.e the hot and sour soup with chicken ($10.95) (#105 on the menu). It was not the best hot and sour soup I've ever had, but it was very good and a solid choice. The portion was also massive (it came in a very large bowl). I was perfectly satisfied.

My Italian-American co-worker had the banh xeo, which was a crepe with pork, shrimp, and bean sprouts ($7.95) (#13 on the menu). It looked delicious and my friend said it was. It was also very amply sized.

Pho Boston has an extensive menu (130 items in all) and the service is solid. The atmosphere is OK, but only pretty much what you'd expect from a restaurant located in a strip mall. That said, the place was crowded with a diverse clientele and my co-worker tells me they always have had good crowds when he has been there, so they must be doing something right.

I have no idea why Pho Boston is called Pho Boston and their website didn't offer any insight. I do know, however, that Pho Boston is a nice little restaurant and that my friend and I both had a good lunch. At some point, my wife and I will check it out for dinner and you probably should too.

Anyway, Here is the link to Pho Boston's website - I am also attaching the link to the entire 8 page Pho Boston menu that I was able to find on the often helpful -

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Max Downtown

Thursday was my wife's and my 5th anniversary. To celebrate, on Friday night we went to Max Downtown, where we were married in the room you see in the picture to the left.

My wife and I decided to get married at Max Downtown because it is quite simply the best restaurant in town. What makes Max Downtown the best is its remarkable consistency. The food is always at least very good and the service is almost always excellent. Indeed, in the last five years I have probably been there at least once a month for either dinner or lunch (often on business) and I can think of 2 occasions where the food was merely good and perhaps 3 occasions where the service was less than excellent. That's a really good track record and not easy to accomplish given the number of tables, how many seatings they tend to do in a typical service, and the standards to which Max Downtown aspires.

Unlike a lot of the places my wife and I like to eat, Max Downtown is fine dining and it stands up very well to the stringent standards against which I rate top-of-the-line operations. First and foremost the service is excellent. Although there is turnover in the waitstaff (perhaps more than you'd like to see), the servers are always very knowledgeable about the menu and many of them have an excellent understanding of the extensive wine list as well. The management is solid, and you will see suits moving throughout the dining area, seating and speaking with customers, and keeping things moving. Even the bus boys (and girls) are extremely efficient, perfectly dressed, and very professional. Friday evening was no exception. We we immediately greeted and seated, the shift manager paid a courtesy visit to wish us a happy anniversary and to check in, our waiter was well-versed on the menu, efficient, and extremely attentive (without being obnoxious), and the table was cleared between courses with no delay and a minimum of fuss.

As usual, the food was very, very, good. In fact, Friday night it was absolutely wonderful. My wife started with the braised short rib cannoloni with crispy shallots, truffle vinaigrette, forest mushroom sauce ($11). I had a bite and it was a great balance of flavors and textures.

I started with the duck confrit flatbread consisting of foie gras pate, grilled red onions, watercress, cranberries, and balsamic-fig glaze ($12). I love foie gras and this serving was very, very, very good (the best fois gras I ever had, however, was on my honeymoon in Montreal, at a place called le Caveau - - it was amazing, but that's a whole other story). Happily, my foie gras on Friday was not only very good, but there was also a more than ample portion, with 8 (count them, 8) pieces of flatbread, each well-supplied with delicious foie gras.

For our salad course, my wife had the Autumn market salad, with roasted sugar pie pumpkin, local apples, beets, frisee, endive candied walnuts, pomegranate vinaigrette ($10 ) while I had the chopped salad, which I had the night we got married. It comes with Gorgonzola cheese and sherry mustard seed vinaigrette ($9). A chopped said is a pretty basic thing, but it needs to be cold, crisp, and well-mixed, which mine (as always) was. The Gorgonzola and vinaigrette are a nice combination of contrasting flavors and textures and are a great compliment to the salad. I have had the Autumn market salad before and I loved it, though my wife was not as excited about it as I.

For dinner, we both had the same thing - the grilled New York Strip Steak entree with melted midnight moon macaroni and cheese, watercress, crispy onions, truffle vinaigrette, red wine jus ($29), which is not to be confused with the aged New York Strip a la carte ($35) from the "Chophouse Classics" section of the menu. If you read my review of the Firebox earlier this month you will remember that my wife criticized the cut of her stake and I thought it had not been cooked to her order of medium rare. In contrast, our steaks at Max Downtown were both top shelf cuts of beef which literally melted in your mouth. They were also cooked absolutely perfectly (medium rare for my wife and rare for me).

In fact, beef is probably the signature dish of Max Downtown and the menu has nine (yes, nine) different cuts from which you can choose. I have had most of them and you really can't go wrong.

The mac and cheese was also a great touch and there was just enough to get the taste of some wonderful cheese, but no so much that it filled you up or distracted you from the excellent steak.

We also split a very nice 2005 brunello ($60, if I remember correctly). It was a little young, but our waiter was more than happy to decant the bottle, which allowed the wine to open up nicely. It had a strong cherry note and it was very smooth.

For desert, my wife and I each had a glass of frangelico (a delicious almond-flavored Italian cordial) and we split the maple budino ($9.95), which is a wonderful concoction consisting of maple syrup, eggs, vanilla, and cream. It was was accompanied by a pair of lovely pizzella (an Italian waffle cookies) and some biscotti. It was a very nice way to end a delicious meal.

Finally, the decor of Max Downtown is definitely upscale, but not overly pretentious. The interior is spacious and well-appointed in a very modern New York steakhouse style. The lighting is always appropriate and the background jazz is a perfect tempo and not too loud. Here is a link to several photos of Max Downtown. While you obviously can't hear the background music, you can see for yourself just how great the fit out is -

Frankly, the only thing that takes away from the atmosphere (at least at dinnertime because lunch is always full of well-behaved suits) is the overly casual attire and attitude of many of the customers. While my wife and I aren't snobs by any means (think about the places we go and food we like to eat!) it is depressing to see adults walk into a fine dining establishment wearing jeans, sweaters, and sneakers, with their similarly attired bratty eight-year-olds in tow. Come on!

In fact, working on this post I read quite a few on-line reviews of Max Downtown. While most were favorable, some were critical, often of the prices (too expensive), the atmosphere (too formal), and/or the staff (too stiff and/or too arrogant). Understand, however, that even though it has sister restaurants, Max Downtown isn't a chain like Ruby Tuesday's. It isn't even say the First & Last Tavern, which is a great neighborhood restaurant with good food. Max Downtown is a fine dining establishment. It is expensive, it is formal, and it really requires some appreciation of upscale cuisine and good wine to truly enjoy.

My wife and I don't always (or even often) want that kind of experience, but when we do, we head straight over to Max Downtown, because no one in these parts does it better. Anyway, here is the link to the Max Downtown page on the Max Restaurant Group website (Max Downtown is easily the best of the lot) -

Saturday, November 27, 2010


Two things convinced me to start writing this blog. The first was Anthony Bourdain, or more accurately my talent (I think) for wrtiting in a style similar to the way he narrates No Reservations. While I don't pretend to know even 10% of what he knows about food, I do think I can weave background history and obscure information into a narrative at least as well as he can.

The second was Adam Richman and his show, Man vs Food, and more particularly the fact that he filmed part of an episode at Woody's in Downtown, Hartford (at left is Adam Richman with his arm around Gary "Woody" Wood, the co-owner of Woody's). I do at least pretend to know about as much about food as Adam Richman and the fact that he chose to film at one of my favorite palces convinced me that there was an audience for the type of writing I do on this blog.

Last weekend my wife was out of town so I spent a chunk of Saturday afternoon at Woody's. Unlike even Broasterant (see below), Woody's isn't a restaurant. It is really an indoor hot dog truck with a small sports bar attached to the back. That is in no way an insult, as Woody's is one of the best hot dog establishments around and it is certainly my favorite by a very wide margin.

Several things make Woody's stand out. The first are the dogs. They are good quality, reasonably priced, and fast off the grill - a great combination. The second are the people. Woody, his wife Cindy, and their crew are hard workers who not only serve up dogs at a fast pace and keep up a lively banter with their customers, they are also excellant people. The third is the place. Woody's is crammed with whacky trinkets, Hartford nostelga, interesting Miami Dolphins memorabilia, and (now) pictures of Adam Richman and other Man vs Food paraphenelia. Put it all together and you have a great little spot at which to have a dog (or two) and a casual conversation with friends on both sides of the counter.

While you won't go wrong if you order a simple hot dog, the stars of Woody's menu are its 12 specialty dogs, known as Woody's Posse, led by the now world famous (thanks to Adam Richman) Deputy Dog, which is a hot dog with BBQ pulled pork, BBQ sauce, and Cheddar Cheese on top. I've had almost the whole posse and on my most recent trip I had a Deputy Dog and a Philly Dog (a regular hot dog slathered with cheese, mushrooms, and grilled onions & peppers). The Philly is very tasty and the condiments provide a nice contrast to the dog, but the Deputy Dog is really the king of the menu (or at least the sheriff of the posse). The pulled pork is locally made, fresh, and outsanding and the BBQ sauce and cheese do wonders for both the pulled pork and the dog (:> x 10). I also like Reuben Dog (hot dog with Thousand Island dressing, sauerkraut, & Swiss cheese).

Woody's also has 2 kinds of delicious (and amazingly unhealthy) curly fries, "regular" and "Cajun." I like the Cajun fries as they have some sort of spice/seasoning which gives them a nice kick.

Woody's also serves up a number of soft drinks (including locally made root beers, cherry sodas, and other specialty sodas and colas) and a good selection of beer, so you can compliment your dog(s) with just the right beverage. They also have other menu options (burgers and the like) but why anyone would go to Woody's and not order one of their delicious hot dogs is a mystery.

Thanks to Gary's love of the Dolphins and the addition of the sports bar, Woody's is now also a premiere Sunday afternoon spot in Hartford during the Fall and you will always find all the NFL games (especially Miami's) and a good crowd. It's a nice addition for the city and a good money maker for Gary and Cindy.

The next time you are Downtown, head over to Woody's and have a Deputy Dog, or a Dogfather, or just a good old fashioned plain hot dog. You won't find a better dog for many, many miles and you'll instantly become part of the fast growing Woody's Posse (thanks in no small part to Adam Richman and Man vs Food); two pretty good things.

Here's the link to Woody's website -

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


My neighbor who came with me to the Primevera Pub back in July has been raving for weeks (if not longer) about a "chicken lady" on Park Street in Hartford who serves up delicious pressure-cooked chickens. I'd heard of (and eaten) steamed cheeseburgers at the famous Ted's in Meriden (I'll be going again soon and will blog about it), but I'd never heard of a pressure-cooked chicken.

Today, my neighbor took me for lunch to check it out. The place is actually called "Broasterant" and it is on Park Street in Hartford, just west of the corner of Broad and Park and it was well worth the trip.

If you don't spend time there, it is easy to write off Park Street as a dirty, crime-ridden and drug-infested stretch of road, but the corner of Broad and Park is the heart of Hartford's Hispanic community and I read or heard somewhere that that intersection is the busiest in the state on Saturdays. I don't know if that is true, but I have been caught in traffic there on a Saturday and it is wicked, as there are many little shops, restaurants, and bars in that area that are pillars of the Hispanic business community. In fact, while it may not be LaSalle Road in West Hartford Center (but what is, right?), that stretch of Park Street is a viable, thriving commercial area that probably is not too much different than Front Street was 100-120 years ago; i.e. a cluster of small businesses on a very congested city street serving (mostly) the needs of a particular ethnic group that lives close by.

Anyway, Broasterant is a straight-up neighborhood joint. The lighting (even in broad daylight) is bad and ambiance consists of a fish tank, a few pictures, and a fire suppression system for the pressure cooker and fryolater. The menu is pretty straightforward - a large or small serving of pressure cooked chicken or some seafood dish I didn't pay any attention to (I think it had something to do with shrimp).

My neighbor and I each had a small chicken lunch, which consisted of a half-chicken and a Portuguese roll (which wasn't oven fresh, but still passable). We also each got an order of fries, which were plentiful and reasonably good. Total tab, including 2 drinks and taxes, was just over $20. Not bad at all.

The chicken was just amazing. The proprietor coats her chicken in a very light flour-based batter that has a good taste, but certainly does not overpower the chicken. When it comes out of the pressure cooker, there is a delicious, crisp, light, and golden brown crust, under which is a ton of very juicy chicken. There really isn't much to say beyond that. It is a simple, filling, and delicious lunch.

My neighbor tells me that word is that Brosterant does a ridiculous business on Friday and Saturday nights after the bars close and I don't doubt it. The prices are good, the service is quick, the portions are large, and the taste is excellent.

Brosterant is pretty much the antithesis of fine dining, but that's ok. It is a little diamond in the rough that was well worth the trip.

I couldn't find a website, or any on-line reviews, so all I can tell you is the address - 630 Park Street - and the telephone number - 860-522-1155. Go there. You won't be disappointed.

Spris - morte

Earlier today, I heard from a co-worker that Spris, which I visited back in August, had closed. I just called and a sad employee confirmed that they were, in fact, closed. He said to stay tuned, however, as the owners were contemplating a new venture in West Hartford Center. If it materializes, the Hartford Food Guy will be there.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Firebox Restaurant

Friday night my wife and I decided to go to the Firebox Restaurant. We had been there once before with friends and had a good - but not great - meal and we wanted to give it another try.

FB is the type of restaurant you want to love. It is in a really cool space in the old Billings Forge on Broad Street in Hartford (just south of the intersection of Broad and Capitol) that has exposed brick and duct work and an absolutely awesome bar. It is committed to local produce and products. It is committed to its neighborhood; it established both a farmers' market and a vegetable garden on the Forge premises (each of which which supplies some of FB's produce) and it offers cooking classes, job-training, and employment opportunities for folks who live in Frog Hollow. And, most important of all, FB has a clever, seasonal, menu.

That said, my wife and I had another good, but not great, meal. There were a lot of high notes, but a few that went sour.

First, while the interior of FB is very cool, it tends to be noisy. We really didn't notice this the first time we went because we were sitting side by side in a booth in the bar area. Last night, however, we were in the back room and sitting across the table from one another and it was not always easy for us to hear one another unless we raised our voices. I don't know that there is much FB can do about that, which is a shame because it detracts from what would otherwise be great ambiance.

We started with the charcuterie. It consisted of three different homemade offerings, including quite possibly the best item either my wife or I have ever had from a charcuterie; duck prosciutto.

Duck can be bit thick and gamy, but this prosciutto was nice and thin and tender and had the added bonus of having just a bit of fat at the edge for added flavor. It was served with cornichon pickles, which are tart pickles made from tiny gherkin cucumbers. The crunch and flavor of the pickles was amazing when combined with the slightly chewiness and flavor of the duck and tiny strip of fat. I can't say enough good things about this offering. It was absolutely outstanding and showed a flash of brilliance that tells me someone in the kitchen has a whole lot of talent.

The charcuterie also contained salmon infused with lemon over cream cheese. My wife loved this as well. I thought it was very good, but perhaps a bit too tart from a touch too much lemon. Still, very creative and delicious.

Finally, there was a pork pate, which was definitely a nod to spam. I say that not as an insult, but rather as a compliment because the winner of the first season of Top Chef won the supermarket quickfire challenge by making a spam pate and many high end chefs have been doing their own take on this 1950's staple ever since. It was not as good as the duck or the salmon, but it was quite tasty, very creative, and a lot of fun.

Another minor criticism. While we were served delicious complimentary Italian bread, the toast points served with the charcuterie were overly crisp and actually somewhat brittle.

For dinner I had the pumpkin ravioli and my wife a special dish consiting of a strip steak, potatoes, creamed spinach, and roasted bone marrow. My dinner was pretty good. The pumpkin filling in the ravioli was tasty, though perhaps made with a bit too much sage. My one criticism is that the ravioli seemed a bit undercooked, which was a shame, because the taste of the pasta itself was quite good.

My wife's dinner had some problems. She thought the strip steak was not the best cut and a bit too tough. I thought it was a bit tough as well, though pretty tasty. I was, however, a little troubled by the fact that my wife ordered it cooked medium and I thought it was much more like medium rare. My wife is a bone marrow addict (I am not) and she was disappointed that she was served only 1/2 a bone, but otherwise she had no complaints. The creamed spinach was not good. It really had no flavor at all and seemed soggy to me. We both liked her potatoes, however, which were good sized, well-cooked, and full of flavor.

If you follow this blog you know I tend to be harder on fine dining establishments than on a neighborhood joint. Here's my thinking - if you hold yourself out as a first class operation and you charge premium prices, then every aspect of your business needs to be 100% squared away. Make no mistake, FB is a good restaurant, but it is not 100% squared away, so it loses points.

My wife had a glass of Montepulciano/Sangiovese, 2006, Rosso Piceno, which we both thought was pretty good. One positive note, FB not only has a good selection of wine, but also a good selection of wines by the glass, which you don't always see.

One aspect of FB which was totally squared away was the service, which was excellent. The staff was friendly and efficient, but not pushy, and we certainly did not feel like we were being rushed through dinner so they could turn the table. Our server also was very knowledgeable about the menu. I was not surprised, not only because FB aspires to be a first class fine dining operation, but also because the front of FB's house is run by my old friend, Spiro Koulouris. I didn't know Spiro was managing FB until I was on my way out, but I have known him for about 10 years, from his early days as a barback at the Half Door on Sisson Avenue in Hartford. He is smart, hardworking, customer-oriented, and very friendly; qualities that really came through during our service.

Bottom line, and it kills me to say this because Sprio is an old friend, but FB is not all there, at least not yet. It has, however, shown flashes of brilliance both times we've gone, which is reason enough to go every once in a while. If FB can nail everything down it will be an excellent restaurant. I would love to be there when it all comes together because it will be one great meal.

Here the link to FB's website -

Vida Doce

I am not going to lie. When I got out of my car and saw the facade of Vida Doce I was afraid that it was going to be some bullshit suburban coffee shop where an underachiever who still lives with mom and dad serves you a $5 scone that was made in Waukegan and shipped across the country wrapped in celephane.

Thank God, I was completely wrong.

Vida Doce is an outstanding little place just off the Berlin Turnpike in Newington. A friend of my wife highly recommended Vida Doce and since I was in the neighborhood yesterday, I thought I would check it out.

As you can see from the picture, Vida Doce doesn't look like anything special and the interior looks a bit like a really upscale Starbucks, but that pastry case you can see on the right is loaded full of magnificent confections and the sandwiches that come out of the kitchen are amazing.

The owner of Vida Doce is Matthew Seguro. If I didn't know he was a fellow Portuguese from his name (which I did), the Portuguese flag he has planted at the entrance to his parking lot would have given it away. That, and the outstanding Portuguese food and pastry he serves.

For lunch I opted for the Bifana ($6.99). Bifana is grilled, marinated pork loin and Vida Doce serves it up on a fresh Portuguese roll with carmelized onions and sauteed peppers. The pork was great. It was moist (which provided plenty of juice to soak into the roll :> x 5) and flavorful, but not over-marinated. I have probably had several hundred sandwiches like this in my life and this one was so good it almost made me teary-eyed thinking of all the great Portuguese food I had as a kid. Outstanding.

Far from the 'sigh' and half-ass service you get at a lot of cafes trying too hard to be chic the service at Vida Doce was friendly and prompt.

I can't go to a bakery, let alone a Portuguese bakery, without getting something, so I opted to get two slices of flan and a half-dozen natas (the last of which I am devouring now as I type) to bring home. It turned out to be about the best $12.50 I've spent in a long, long time. I am not a huge fan of flan, but since I was going old school/old country yesterday, I went all the way. It was amazing. The texture was perfect and it was tasty without being too sweet. My wife thought it was the best flan she had had in many years. It also had the added plus of being on a bed of chocolate cake, which was itself really, really good.

For the uninitiated, natas are a traditional Portuguese pastry that were invented in Lisbon about 300 years ago, but which now can be found pretty much anywhere in the world where Portuguese is spoken. They look like very small pies and consist of custard in a flaky pie crust. The top of the custard takes on a brownish color. They are very, very, very tasty little morsels and Vida Doce's stacked up perfectly well.

Vida Doce has a full range of pastries (including all the traditional Italian specialties) and about ten different very reasonably-priced sandwiches, ranging from bifana to eggplant and tuna fish. They also serve breakfast (both traditional Portuguese and American) until 11 AM and they make wedding cakes and other special-order cakes.

If you are on the Berlin Turnpike at lunchtime, don't go to Wendy's and waste your money and shorten your life. Go to Vida Doce and have a delicious sandwich and then some desert (OK, that might shorten your life too, but I'd rather die from eating delicious food and rich pastry than from eating crappy fast food loaded with salt and chemical preservatives). My wife tells me Vida Doce is fairly new so I am sure they would appreciate the patronage. I know I'll be going back - soon.

Here's a link to Vida Doce's website:

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Costa del Sol

What we today know as Spain arose out of a patchwork of small Christian kingdoms that served as a bulwark between the rest of Europe and the once mighty Caliphate of Cordoba which dominated much of North Africa and much of the Iberian Penninsular until about AD 1000. In the northeast was Navarre, centered around Pamplona in the Basque region. In the southeast, along the Pyrenees, was Aragon, founded by Charlemagne as a barrier between his empire and the Caliphate. In the center, there was Castile (literally, the land of castles), a wild frontier where Cross and Crescent frequently came to blows. In the northwest was Leon, to which was usually appended Galacia, which is the part of Spain that extends over the northern border of Portugal.

Galacia is home to the most sacred Christian shrine on the Iberian Penninsular (and one of the most sacred in the world), the shrine of Santiago (St. James) de Compostela. It is from Galacia that Pepe Feijoo and his family came in 1966. After 20 years of hard work, he was able to open Costa del Sol (which, ironically, is the name of the region in the far south of Spain, below Granada) on Wethersfield Avenue on the Hartford/Wethersfield line and they have been serving delicious, authentic, Spanish food ever since.

Continuing our recent attempt to diversify our cuisine, my wife and I decided to go to CDS last Saturday. It was her first trip and when it was over I could not only tell that she had really enjoyed it, but also that she might have been a bit annoyed that I waited nearly 7 years to bring her there.

Our meal started with complimentary bread and olive oil so fresh it tasted like it had just been pressed. My wife and I (especially my wife) have had a lot of olive oil in our lives and it isn't an exaggeration to say that CDS's olive oil might have been the best (CDS's website points out, actually boasts, that "Spain produces 44% of the world's olives").

We started with two appetizers, the Tabla Iberica (Serrano ham, chorizo, salchichón, Manchego cheese and San Simon cheese) $10 & the Pulpo (Galician style octopus with Spanish paprika, sea salt and extra virgin olive oil) $11. The meats and cheeses that comprised the Tabla Iberica were outstanding, particulatly the salchichon (which is sort of like salami). The octupus was well-prepared (i.e. not overcooked), but it was not outstanding, which was a small disappointment (at least for me), though the Tabla Iberica more than carried the day.

For dinner we elected to have paella. Paella comes from the Valencia region of southeast Spain (Valencia was the base of operations for the great Spanish warlord, Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, better known to us as El Cid) and is made from a base of rice, saffron, and olive oil into which herbs, spices, meats, seafood, shellfish and all sorts of other delicious things are mixed. For those that don't know, one of the hallmarks of paella is a thin crust of rice (which is infused with the other flavors in the dish) that forms along the bottom of the pan (:> x 25).

CDS has four different versions of paella and we opted for the Paella de la Casa (clams, mussels, shrimp, chicken and chorizo) for $21 each. It was absolutely outstanding. The flavors were well-balanced, the ingredients fresh, and the dish piping hot. Granted, it doesn't sound complicated, and compared to many fine dining meals it isn't, but paella, especially CDS's paella, is proof of Gordon Ramsey's adage "simple food cooked well."

One thing to note about CDS's paella, however, is that it comes in at least a double serving, which means solo diners will have to have choose something else. Fortunately, CDS has a full menu, so the solo diner (or those who want to try something else) can choose from a number of excellent dishes ranging from the ubiquitous codfish to pork osso buco to mariscada (clams, muscles, shrimp, fish, and squid in your choice of either a tomato based broth or a seafood garlic parsley broth).

For desert we had the fruit and cheese plate ($7) which was the perfect way to end the meal as the cheeses were amazing.

CDS has a very nice wine list built (not surprisingly) around a variety of Spanish reds and whites, though there are quite a few New World offerings (most from Argentina and Chile). Not surprisingly, CDS also serves absolutely amazing sangria (if you don't know what sangria is, I am not going to explain it. Try some, I promise, you won't be disappointed).

CDS also has a full range of cordials, including (not surprisingly) a number of ports of varying prices and quality.

CDS may be a family-operated ethnic restaurant, but it is no way tacky, hokey, or anything other than a first class fine dining establishment. The interior is heavily Mediterranean in terms of decor, colors, lighting, etc. but it is extremely tastefully appointed.

The service is outstanding. The staff is knowledgeable, hardworking, and attentive, but they do not hover or annoy.

Simply put, Costa del Sol is a great restaurant.

Here's the link to its website -

Monday, October 4, 2010

Abyssinian Restaurant

Most people know very little about Ethiopia, let alone Ethiopian cuisine. In fact, most of what I do know about Ethiopia is only because I know a good amount about the history of my own people, the Portuguese.

In the 1400's the Portuguese worked very hard to find a route to India by sailing south along the African coast in the hope of finding the southern tip of the continent. There were two reasons for this exploration. The first was that a route to India that did not go through the Mediterranean would allow my ancestors to circumvent the monopoly my wife's Italian ancestors had on the spice trade with the east. The second was that the Portuguese, like all Europeans, were dimly aware of an ancient Christian kingdom called Abyssinia (Christianity arrived in what is now Ethiopia in the 4th century AD and Ethiopia has a monarchy that can trace its roots to the 2nd century, BC). This kingdom was supposedly ruled by a powerful and pious monarch named Prestor John and the Portuguese hoped to forge an alliance with him.

The Portuguese eventually made it around the Cape of Good Hope in 1488 and to Ethiopia in 1508. There was, however, no saintly and mighty king named Prestor John, and although the Portuguese did form an alliance with Ethiopia it was quite the opposite of what the Portuguese had hoped for. Rather than receiving aid in their own wars with the Islamic people of what is now Morocco, the Portuguese soon had to come to the aid of the Ethiopians, who were invaded by neighboring Islamic Adal (which occupied part of what is now Somalia).

I wish I could tell you my knowledge of some of Ethiopia's history is what inspired me to try the Abyssinian, but it's not. The Abyssinian Restaurant is right next door to Monte Alban (see below) and is a good example of the three principles of real estate investment - location, location, and location.

I don't know how many times my wife and I walked by the Abyssinian on our way into Monte Alban, but my wife eventually got curious about Ethiopian cuisine, did a little research, and suggested that we go there for dinner (I suspect that's how the Abyssinian gets a lot of its customers, because they don't have a website, they don't advertise, and I don't know that there are enough Ethiopians living in the area to support the Abyssinian without any non-Ethiopian customers). We have been many times since.

If you follow this blog you know I've been eating a lot of Italian food lately so this past Saturday my wife and I decided to go the Abyssinian for some variety and because we hadn't been there for several months.

Before I start talking about the food I need to make full disclosure about an extremely important aspect of the Abyssinian: the service is bad. Really, really, really bad. They don't have enough people working (I have never seen more than 1 person in the dining room and I don't know that there is more than one in the kitchen) and the person who runs the dining room really isn't a restaurant person, even though is pretty hardworking and a nice guy. It takes a LONG time to get seated and to have your order taken and the food isn't particularly quick in coming out of the kitchen. My wife and I thus make it a rule to get there before 6 PM and if at all possible before 5:30 PM (another possibility is to order take out).

You are now probably asking yourself why you should go a restaurant where there the service is so slow that you need to have dinner at the same time as your grandparents to get in and out in a reasonable amount of time. I know you are, because I was asking myself the same question on Saturday night (we got there at about 6:15 PM) while were waiting, and waiting, and waiting to have our order taken (I don't think we ordered until about 6:45 PM. Mercifully, the food came out of the kitchen at a reasonable pace, but not quick enough to make up for the very slow start).

The answer, of course, is because however bad the service is (and it is bad) the food is that good, times about 5.

Ethiopian cuisine is very different than Western cuisine. First and foremost, unless you are eating a salad, you don't use utensils. To the extent the food is not something that can easily be picked up, you use a soft, spongy bread to pick it up. This bread comes in large circles, not unlike a tortilla, but it is thick and porous, which allows it to soak up the flavors of whatever it is you are picking up (a definite advantage). Second, Ethiopian cuisine is very hot. Red and green peppers abound (as do spicy sauces made using peppers) as do a variety of spices.

The food itself, on the other hand, tends to be what you'd expect from a pastoral economy; lamb, beef, and goat (there isn't any goat on the Abyssinian's menu, however), cottage cheese, yogurt, simple greens and vegetables. Chicken also appears to be quite popular and there are also plenty of purely vegetarian meals. Because Ethiopia is a land-locked country, however, there isn't much fish (the Abyssinian does have one freshwater fish entree).

Possibly the best way to describe the cuisine (and this isn't entirely accurate) is the type of food you'd expect at a Greek restaurant but prepared with the spices and flavors you'd expect if you went to the Shish Kebab House of Afghanistan (see my post back in July).

My wife and I were hoping to start with two orders of sambusa ($5.95 per order, with each order consisting of several sambusas). A sambusa is very much like a samosa, for those familiar with Indian cooking. For those not, it is a small simple pastry into which are stuffed all sorts of delicious meats, vegetables, and spices.

We wanted an order of lentil sambusas (made with green pepper, lentils, onions, and other stuff) and an order of vegetarian sambusa (made with carrots, potatoes, green beans, and other stuff). The Abyssinian's sambusas are excellent. Tasty and not too heavy; i.e. the perfect way to start a meal. Unfortunately, the kitchen wasn't making sambussa (this has happened to us at least once before) so we had to order something else.

We had a lentil salad (yemiser) which consisted of lentils, onions, peppers, and herbs ($5.95). I thought it was good but my wife loved it. The ingredients were all fresh and the flavors combined well. We also had a cottage cheese based dish consisting of fresh cottage cheese (ayb) with collard greens (also $5.95). My wife liked it, but I loved it. I thought the flavors and textures of the collard greens and the cottage cheese offset each other quite well.

For dinner, I had the yebeg wot ($12.95), which is a wonderful concoction of lamb cubes in a spicy and hot red pepper sauce which also includes ginger, garlic, onions, and cardamon. The flavor of the sauce does a great job of contrasting with the lamb and the texture of the sauce definitely offsets the texture of the lamb. The sauce also melds well into the porous bread and really brings it to life with a burst of peppery heat. I have had probably a half-dozen different entrees but this is my favorite.

My wife had the lega tibs ($13.95), which are beef cubes sauteed in onions, a variety of spices, and black pepper. This is one of my wife's favorite meals and I like it as well. Unfortunately, she found her meal just a tad overcooked, but certainly well within the range of what you would eat without complaint. For my part, I also thought it might be just a touch overdone. Frankly, however, it was still quite good.

I can't stress enough how good the food is at the Abyssinian and how it makes the wait more than worthwhile. In fact, eating at the Abyssinian is really an act of faith. You sit there and wait, kicking yourself for not going somewhere with better service hoping that the food justifies the long wait and it always does.

As you can see from the picture, the decor of the Abyssinian is a lot different than what you'd expect at a down-home ethnic restaurant. There really isn't any brickerbrac and although simple, the place is quite tasteful. My only criticism is the music, but not everyone will agree. There is jazz on a loop, but it is too loud (at least for my wife and me) and it tends to be a bit up-tempo and frenetic and not particularly relaxing.

The Abyssinian offers desert, but I don't think there is anything more than flan on the menu and given how long it takes to complete a service, we never stick around for desert. It also has a very basic selection of beer and it has also has a small, and pretty pedestrian, wine list. I had a Sam Adams on Saturday, but it really isn't the sort of place you go if you are looking to have a few beers or some wine with dinner.

I acknowledge that the Abyssinian is not for everyone. Ethiopian cuisine is very different than the food most people eat and it is pretty hot and spicy. The service is also a real challenge, which means you either have to re-arrange your dinner schedule or be prepared to wait; things most people generally aren't prepared to do. That said, the food is excellent and if you have an adventurous palette, or are just craving something different, try the Abyssinian. The food is absolutely delicious and you will find yourself richly rewarded for having made the trip.

As I said, the Abyssinian doesn't have a website, but here are some links to reviews and a maps. I couldn't find an on-line menu -;

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Franklin Giant Grinders

About a week ago I went for lunch at the Corner Grinder on Franklin Ave (see below). I was hungry yesterday afternoon and I was also feeling a bit guilty that I had chosen to review the Corner Grinder and not Franklin Giant Grinders. Now, there really isn't much (if any) difference between the two, other than location (Franklin Giant is at Franklin Ave and Brown Street and the Corner Grinder is at Franklin Ave and Elliot Street) and the fact that Franklin Giant is open on Sundays, but I prefer Franklin Giant and I am a big believer in loyalty. So, I decided to kill two birds (or at least chicken cutlets) with one stone and go to lunch at Franklin Giant.

Like the Corner Grinder, Franklin Giant serves up "whole" and "half" grinders, and just like the Corner Grinder, the Franklin Giant "half" grinder is more than sufficient for a single meal. Franklin Giant also serves pizza, and like the Corner Grinder you can also get pasta, though the Corner Grinder has more menu options (why, however, anyone would order pasta at a grinder shop is beyond me).

I decided to have a half capicolla with peppers, lettuce, and tomatoes. Capicolla should be spicy and it was; very spicy. As were the peppers. Offset by the cold of the lettuce and tomatoes, however, they were perfect. I have had a bunch of different things from Franklin Giant and it has all been delicious. And, just like at the Corner Grinder, you can get your grinder slathered in sauce and garnished with hot peppers. Delicious.

If there is one real difference between the Corner Grinder and Franklin Giant it is that the Corner Grinder seems to have more old-school South End, Italian-American customers. Sometimes when you go there, you can really get a sense of what Franklin Ave was like 35 or 40 years ago.

On the other hand, Franklin Giant seems to have the more diverse customer base and it is not uncommon to see rich and poor; blacks, whites, and Hispanics; Italian-Americans and everyone else; and urban and suburban all crowded around the counter waiting for their orders. Indeed, in a city known for tribalism and divisions, Franklin Giant is one of the few institutions that seems to be able to unify people, if for no other reason than their common love of hearty food. Perhaps if we could just get Franklin Giant to put together one of their party plates (no sausage, salami, or capicolla!) and send it over to the Middle East, the Arabs and Israelis could sit down over veal cutlets and hammer something out.

Anyway, like the Corner Grinder, Franklin Giant does not have a website. Here are some links to directions, reviews, and the menu -;;

Casa Bella

Last Tuesday I had to be in New Jersey on business. It was a long drive to and from, but it gave me the opportunity to have lunch at one of my (and my wife's) favorite Italian restaurants; Casa Bella, in Denville, NJ.

My wife and I discovered CB about 5 years ago. We were heading west on I-80 on a Friday night in the summer, which wasn't particularly smart because I-80 is the highway you take out of New York City to go to the Poconos. Needless to say, the traffic was pretty bad and we found ourselves in stop-and-go, bumper-to-bumper traffic. At 7:30 PM on a hot Friday, that is not much fun, especially when you are trying to get to southern Pennsylvania.

We were both very hungry and we needed gas, so we got off the 1st exit after the junction with I-278. After driving a bit in either direction on US Highway 46 we saw CB. We both agreed that a roadside Italian restaurant in central/western New Jersey was probably going to be incredibly mediocre, but it was also possible that it could be a hidden gem, because (as my wife put it, with just a hint of her famous sarcasm) "Italians can cook, you know." Since we don't eat at chains except in the most dire of emergencies and we saw nothing more promising, we decided we'd give it a shot.

That decision turned out to be a very good one, as we had an excellent meal. So good, in fact, that every time we are driving south of NYC, we try to plan the trip so we can have a meal at CB.

CB is an old, old school Italian restaurant. The waiters (there are no waitresses) wear crisp white shirts, ties (or bow ties) and vests (dark green, dark red or black). Many of them speak with thick accents. They are all very professional and far more "fine dining" than "family restaurant" in terms of their level of knowledge and the quality of service they provide.

That said, the interior of CB is pretty ordinary, though all the chairs have green leather seats, and the tables are covered in very nice white linen tablecloths. The cutlery is old-fashioned but very nice, and every table setting is accompanied by a perfectly folded white linen napkin.

The menu at CB is pretty traditional, but it is extensive and there are multiple pasta, veal, beef, chicken, and seafood entrees and a variety of appetizers and desserts. There are separate menus for lunch (11:30am to 4pm) and dinner (after 4pm). CB also has a wine list, but since we go there when we are on the road, that is pretty much out of the question for us.

On this trip, after my complimentary bruschetta (which is nice and crisp) I started with the fresh (actually very fresh) mozzarella with roasted peppers and sun dried tomatoes in a balsamic vinegerette ($7.25). The heat of the roasted peppers contrasted very well with the mozzarella.

My wife and I have tried most of the appetizers on the menu. Particularly memorable are the prosciutto e melone; i.e. imported prosciutto with slices of melon ($7.95) and the zuppa di cozze ($8.25): i.e. steamed mussels in wine, olive oil, garlic and red sauce (there is also an alternative white sauce). We also had the fungi farciti ($7.95), or mushroom caps, stuffed with crab meat. It was pretty darn good.

For lunch I decided to have the saltimbocca alla romana; i.e. the veal saltimbocca($15.50). I've had it once before and it was as delicious this time as it was last time. The meal consists of several very thin slices of veal in a thick marsala and mushroom based sauce, which has an excellent flavor that compliments (but does not overpower) the veal. It was excellent.

Between us, we have probably had at least a dozen different entrees and they all have been very, very good. I think my favorite was the Costata di vitello alla fiorentina ($27.95). The description on the menu says it all; "Thick, plump sauteed veal chop, with prosciutto, shallots and brown sauce." It might be the best Italian meal I have ever had, and it is definitely among my top 10 or 12 meals of all time. The only downside (if you can call it that) is that it is a very rich and filling meal. In fact, the first time I had it I wanted to take a 4 hour nap afterwards (I was on my way to an important meeting when I went this week, so a 4 hour nap, or feeling like I wanted one, was out of the question).

For desert I had the tirami su ($6.50) which I've had once before. It was good, though not as good as the last time I had it.

After our first meal at CB we wondered how such a great little restaurant could make it work on a pretty barren stretch of an old US Highway. We later learned (pretty much by being there at lunchtime and right after work) that there are some large office parks in nearby Parsippany and many people who work there go to CB for lunch, happy hour, and/or an early dinner. Also, the few times we have been there later in the dinner service, we have always seen what appear to be a lot of locals in the bar (which is on your right as you enter CB) and in the dining room.

CB is a very good restaurant. So good, in fact, that it is hard to characterize. It is much, much better than your average Italian restaurant and the food is as good as you are likely to find outside of Little Italy, Arthur Avenue, or the North End of Boston. The atmosphere, menu, and prices, however, aren't what you'd find in a fine dining establishment.

Probably the best way to put it is that CB is a really, really good old-fashioned Italian restaurant. You may or may not ever find yourself at the junction of I-80 and I-278 at lunch or dinner time. If you do, however, take the trip Casa Bella. It's just a few minutes west and you will not be disappointed.

Here is a link to Casa Bella's website -

Sunday, September 19, 2010

First & Last Tavern

Friday turned out to be my ode to the South End. After lunch at the Corner Grinder (see below), I went for dinner with my neighbor (who came with me to the Primavera Pub) to the First & Last Tavern on Maple Ave. I have been going to the F&L since I came to Hartford in 1994, but I especially like going with my neighbor because he grew up just a few blocks away. Needless to say, he's a regular.

In fact, one of the great things about the F&L in Hartford is the large number of regulars who have been going there for 30, 40, or even 50 years. Almost all are originally from Hartford and though most now live in Wethersfield, Newington, Rocky Hill, or West Hartford, they still make a weekly (or at least monthly) pilgrammage. In fact, some nights you get the sense that everyone in the place knows everyone else. Now, that's a neighborhood restuarant.

The F&L has been around since 1938. With the closure of the Municipal Cafe (1929) on Main Street a couple of years ago, the F&L has to be the oldest restaurant in the city, if not the area. Until 1983 the F&L was operated by the DiMillos. Since then, it has been owned and operated by the DePasquales.

Until just before I moved to Hartford, the F&L was a tiny little spot that consisted of the area to the left of the "&" symbol in the picture above. The menu was simple - 14 (numbered "1" through "14") entrees, built around, shells, spaghetti, sausage and peppers, meatballs, and your basic grinders, and you sat in one of about 8 or 9 old-fashioned wooden booths or at the small bar. The expansion of the F&L allowed for a full dining room, expanded menu options, and pizza.

It is not fair to compare the F&L to a fine dining establishment because that is not what it is, or what it tries to be. What we are talking about is a family-type neighborhood restaurant and the food measures up perfectly well to that standard (actually very well).

When I go to the F&L I usually have a 10 1/2 (spaghetti with 1 meatball and 1 sausage; spaghetti with meatballs is #10 on the menu and spaghetti with sausage is #11). Because I was with my neighbor the regular, however, we had several different things and I am not sure that everything we had is actually on the menu the way it was served to us (I have absolutely no idea what it all cost as he picked up the tab in consideration for my having bought drinks and appetizers earlier last week at Salute). Then again, the F&L (at least the one in Hartford) is exactly the type of place where you can substitute and mix and match without drawing the ire of the kitchen and the disapproval of the wait-staff, so I would bet you could duplicate our dinner if you wanted to.

We started with meatballs and sausages in sauce with a basket of bread. F&L has a bakery across the street (where there is a nice parking lot to supplement the tiny lot behind the restaurant) and they bake all their bread, so it is pretty much always quite fresh and delicious. F&L also makes all their own pasta sauce (which is also available in good-sized jars). It is not as good as my wife's gravy (which is what many Italian-Americans call pasta sauce) but nothing is, except maybe my mother-in-law's. Still, it is tasty. The meatballs and sausages were (as always) good-sized, hot, and delicious.

I also had some little neck clams from the raw bar. They were not ocean-fresh (we are 40 miles inland, after all) but they were still good and did still have a faint taste of the Atlantic (or at least Long Island Sound).

We often have an order of hot peppers and/or roasted peppers, but having been at the Corner Grinder just a few hours earlier I had had my fill of peppers for the day, especially because the F&L's peppers pack plenty of heat (they are not watered down for the bland palettes of the mass market).

For dinner I had a small (12") anchovy pizza and my neighbor had a small bacon pizza. F&L serves authentic thin-crust pizza. It may not be as good as Frank Pepe's Original Neapolitan Pizza in New Haven, but what is? Still, it is the best thin crust pizza in the area by a good margin.

The anchovy pizza came with plenty of anchovies and also had ground peppers and spices sprinkled on top. It was delicious. The bacon pizza is sprinkled with crispy chunks of bacon. It is probably ridiculously unhealthy, but it was delicious as well.

For desert we each had a hot fudge sundae made with vanilla Haägen Dazs. It is the perfect way to top off a night of rich, spicy Italian food.

One of the things that makes the F&L a great place to visit are the many old pictures of Hartford which are on prominent display. There are quite a few in the "new" dining room area, but there are many more in the "old" part of the restaurant. When you look at those pictures you get a real sense of what Hartford was once like, and if you are sitting in the "old" part of the restaurant (which although clean and well-kept, looks pretty much exactly as it must have looked when the F&L opened) you can imagine yourself back in the 1940's or 50's, ordering a 7 or a 9 1/2 (or something).

The service at the F&L is about what you'd hope for at a neighborhood family-type restaurant; friendly and hardworking.

If you go to the F&L in Hartford on a Thursday, Friday, or Saturday night, you are going to have to wait, so you need to be prepared for that. You can usually wait at the bar, however.

The F&L has a bunch of different locations outside of Hartford and I have been to the ones in Avon and Middletown. The food is the same but the experience is not. The F&L is one of Hartford's enduring institutions and if you really want to experience it, you have to go to the source.

Here is the link the F&L's website -

Corner Grinder

Pretty much everyone agrees that after the demolition of Front Street and the East Side of Downtown, the spiritual center of the city's Italian-American community moved to Franklin Ave. Today, you're a lot more likely to hear Spanish, or even Serbo-Croatian, spoken on Franklin Ave than Italian, but there still are a good number of Italian restaurants, bakeries, and other businesses. The Corner Grinder (along with its rival, Franklin Giant Grinders) is chief among them.

On Friday, my Italian-American co-worker who came with me to the Primavera Pub and another co-worker decided to go for lunch. We were going to go to East Hartford for pho, but the other co-worker caused to be just a few minutes behind schedule, putting us at the back of a very long line at Pho 501. After jumping on the Charter Oak Bridge, we decided that we'd hit Franklin Ave. If I'd been driving, we would have gone to Franklin Giant, but since my Italian-American co-worker was behind the wheel, we ended up at the Corner Grinder (there really isn't a whole lot of difference between the two, but people, including me, have their favorite).

The Corner Grinder has been around for a long time (I don't know anyone who knows exactly how long) and it is a very popular spot, both for those who grew up in the South End (many of whom make regular pilgrimages back), as well as for everyone that loves hearty grinders stuffed with all sorts of Italian-American specialties. Now, there is nothing fancy about the Corner Grinder (the inside is pretty consistent with the outside) and it certainly isn't fine dining, but very few places in this part of Connecticut can match the quality and quantity the Corner Grinder serves up.

The first thing you need to understand about the Corner Grinder is that the grinders are BIG. They come in both "half" and "whole" servings and the half-grinder is more than enough for me, which is saying something.

The second thing you need to know is that this is down home, Italian American street food (as Anthony Bourdain would call it). There are no fluffy sandwiches served by some kid with a gotee named Trevor, or girl with her tongue pierced name Sky, like you'd get at some overpriced fake Euro coffee shop. You know what I am talking about, something like avocado, goat cheese, and prosciutto on a faux crustini. No, you're going to have a guy whose name is probably Sal, or Johnny, or Buddy, serving up salami, cappicolla, cutlets, meatballs and all sorts of other hearty stuff, loaded on a grinder roll, garnished (if you can call it that) with peppers, and slathered with homemade sauce. Delicious.

For lunch, my Italian-American co-worker went with the half-steak grinder, which looked really good. My co-worker that caused us to be late got a half-meatball grinder, which also looked good. I went the whole way and had a half-chicken cutlet, with peppers, cheese, and sauce. Outstanding. There really isn't much else to say.

Seriously, the Corner Grinder is a great grinder shop; no more, no less. The next time you are in the South End (except on Sunday, when it's closed) treat yourself to a half-Salami. You won't be sorry.

The Corner Grinder doesn't have a website, but here some links to reviews, maps, and the menu (it's pretty much your standard grinder shop, so cutlets, 42 kinds of smoked meats and pretty much no vegetables other than peppers and eggplant are on the menu) -;;

Sunday, September 12, 2010


Yesterday, of course, was September 11. Unlike the past eight September 11's since the 9/11, it was not really a day of somber memorials and sober reflection, so much as a day filled with argument and controversy over the role of Islam in our political and cultural life.

It was thus perhaps ironic that my wife and I decided to go to the Anatolia restaurant in Waterbury for lunch (it was also an absolute coincidence as we were planning to go there last weekend but something came up). For those that don't know, for several centuries the Muslim Turks were the bane of Christian Europe, ending the Byzantine Empire in 1453, overrunning Greece, the Balkans, and most of Hungary in the 15th and 16th centuries, besieging Malta in 1565, and literally reaching the gates of Vienna in 1529 and again in 1683. Yet, Turkey now is a member of NATO, one of our strongest allies in the Muslim world, and it is perhaps the most westernized of all Muslim nations besides Albania, Kosovo, and Bosnia (themselves legacies of several hundred years of Turkish dominance in the Balkans).

Yesterday, however, was for us not a day of politics, or for history, but for food; delicious Turkish food. We have been to the Anatolia a few times before with very good results and yesterday was no different.

Not surprisingly, Turkish food bears a great resemblance to the type of food you'd associate with Middle Eastern or Lebanese cooking, and there are also a lot of common elements with Greek cuisine, notwithstanding the longstanding tense (often worse) relations between the two countries. That said, it does have a style and flavor all its own.

One of the key elements in Turkish cuisine is sumac, a spice derived from a number of different but related red flowering plants (the word sumac being derived from Medieval French, Latin, Arabic, and Syrian words for "red"). You'll find sumac in Turkish, Iranian, and Arab, and other Middle Eastern cuisines and it adds a lemony taste to the foods it garnishes. Several of Anatolia's dishes have sumac in them and every table has sumac which you can sprinkle on to your food.

Yesterday we started with an order of Dolma ($7.50), or stuffed leaves, and the large cold mixed appetizer plate ($15.95), which is an Anatolia special, and almost a meal in and of itself. The Dolma were fantastic (my wife said the best she'd ever had). They were stuffed with seasoned rice and a thin paste that tasted like it had been made from dates. The sweetness of the dates, contrasted with the rice and leaves very well, and the mixture of textures was an added plus.

The mixed appetizer plate is one of the best appetizers you will have anywhere in Connecticut. It consists of a very large plate covered with a different number of dishes; humas, baba ghanoush (mashed, seasoned eggplant), kisir (cracked wheat, tomatoes, scallions, parsley and sumac); ispanak (spinach, garlic, and onions with yogurt); shaksuka (or meneman, consisting of eggs, tomatoes, onions, green pepper and spices); antep ezine (onions, red and green peppers, garlic, walnut, and spices); and haydari (a yogurt dip flavored with walnut).

The plate also comes with a generous portion of crispy bread which appeared to be ekmegi, which is a wheat based bread glazed with yogurt and sesame seeds. The bread is used to dip, and to spread the various dishes, and its texture and consistency offsets the different dishes very well.

It really is hard to describe how good this plate is, because there are so many different flavors and textures, but it really is quite fantastic and the portions are more than generous. It is also a great way to sample a bunch of different traditional Turkish dishes, so that alone would make it worth a try.

For dinner I had the iskander kabab ($14.95) which is seasoned lamb and veal in a tomato sauce with yogurt over fried bread. You also get about 1/4 of a roasted tomato, which makes a nice garnish. The different textures alone make it a fun dish (crunch bread, chewy meat, and smooth yogurt and tomato sauce) and the different flavors are great (especially because the fried bread soaks up the different favors). In fact, my wife and I have had a few different entrees and we both agree that this is the best on the menu (I can't take credit for a better menu choice this week. My wife suggested I have the iskander kabab because we both knew how good it is and she agreed to try the manti because we've never had that before).

My wife decided to try the manti ($12.95) which is a traditional turkish pasta consisting of tiny (smaller than a dime) dumplings with lamb, with garlic, sumac, and red pepper, served with a tomato sauce and yogurt. Her dinner was very good, but it was extremely rich because manti is cooked in butter, a lot of butter. In fact, if you are not used to (or don't like) very rich foods, the manti may not be for you. Still, it was very tasty and a solid choice.

To drink, my wife opted for club soda, but I had an authentic Turkish apricot juice ($2.00). It was super sweet and delicious, but probably not for people that don't like very sweet foods and drinks.

For desert, I had the stutlac, or rice pudding ($4.75), which was a solid choice, but not particularly exciting. My wife had the sekerpare ($4.75) a pastry made from semolina flour, almonds, sugar, and eggs. The consistency is like those old stella doro cookies, but the taste is much, much better, though it is a pretty subtle desert that doesn't smash you over the head with sweetness or flavor.

My wife also had Turkish tea ($1.50) while I had Turkish coffee ($2.50). If you have never had Turkish coffee you ought to try it, especially if you like strong coffee. That said, Turkish coffee is very, very strong stuff (about twice as strong as what we would consider espresso) and served very, very hot so beware, it is for sipping, not for drinking and certainly not for gulping.

Ironically, like Ichiban last week, Anatolia is in what used to be a Friendly Ice Cream, so it is another good example of how small businesses can thrive in an urban environment when chains can't (or won't). The place is clean, neat, and well organized and the staff is friendly and very hard-working (I think most people would consider it understaffed, but the service doesn't suffer a bit).

I am not expert in Turkish food, so I can't say for sure how authentic the cooking is, but I know Anatolia is owned by a Turk (Mahsun Yigit) who does all the cooking, there is a TV in the back of restaurant toward the kitchen which always seems to be playing a soccer match from what appears to be the Turkish professional league, and I have always seen at least one group of Turks eating whenever I have been in Anatolia (including a large extended family of about a dozen yesterday), so my guess is, it is pretty darn authentic. I do know for sure, however, that it is a very good little restaurant and that my wife and I will keep going there.

Bottom line - Anatolia is another good ethnic restaurant that is reasonably priced that won't stretch your wallet but which will stretch your palette, even if a lot of the food has elements which are pretty familiar. Those are all good things, so check it out.

Anatolia doesn't have a website, but here are links to directions and reviews, including a reasonably favorable review from the New York Times -;;;

Sunday, September 5, 2010


Before I moved to Hartford in 1994 I had never had sushi. Two lady friends introduced me to it by taking me to Ichiban. After learning how to use chopsticks, I never looked back.

In those days, Ichiban was in Bushnell Plaza in a space formerly occupied by an Irish sort of bar called Shenanigans. Although Bushnell Plaza is pretty sterile, the space was actually interesting because the owners of Shenanigans had assembled inside an old diner car, which made for a perfect sushi bar (table seating was around what would have been the outside of the diner car).

At that time, I was living in Bushnell on the Park, so having a sushi place right across the way was great, especially because at that time the owner of Ichiban (Sam Oh) was living in the same building as me. I got to be very friendly with him and his staff and many times I would go there on Sunday afternoon and be the only Westerner in the place.

I was heartbroken when Ichiban left Downtown and moved to its present location on Farmington Avenue in the West End (pictured above) around 1998 (I vaguely remember someone buying the diner car and taking it to Rhode Island). It was a great move for the business, as Ichiban has been very successful in its new location and attracted a whole new clientele of West Hartford residents willing to hop over the city line, but apparently not willing to make the trip Downtown and scavenge for parking.

It is also a great example of how small businesses can thrive in cities even when chains aren't willing to invest. Ichiban is in what used to be a Friendly's Ice Cream that closed. Oh bought it, gutted it, and refurbished it. The chain is gone, but the location is more successful today than ever.

I haven't gone to Ichiban nearly as much as I used to when it was Downtown (sake and driving definitely do not mix) but I haven't been disappointed any time I have gone. My wife and try to get there as much as we can and yesterday we decided it was time to make the trip.

At the outset, it's important to note that Ichiban isn't a classic sushi bar because it is also a sit-down Korean restaurant. I have very limited exposure to Korean food and I haven't had too much from the non-sushi part of Ichiban's menu, so I really can't comment.

On the other hand, I have had the sushi more than enough times to say that for my money, it is the best place around.

Yesterday, my wife and I started with an order of sliced codfish ($5.50) pan fried in an egg batter (which is yellow and light, as opposed to a flour based batter, which is brown and heavier). My wife though it was pretty good, but I really liked it. We both loved our order of kani (crab) shumai ($5.50). The flavor was amazing.

We then had some squid salad ($4.95 each). The squid was nice and fresh, which made it chewy and a sprinkling of sesame seeds gave it some texture. The squid is served with pickled ginger (or gari, as it is called) which makes it a great palette cleanser.

Our dinner was built around a dragon roll, which was about 8 pieces of fried shrimp and avocado with a teriyaki glaze over which were sprinkled sesame seeds ($8.95). Sushi is not just about taste, it is also about texture, and the crunchiness of the fried shrimp and the softness of the avocado work really well together. Also, the sweetness of teriyaki sauce offsets the shrimp and the avocado quite well.

We also had a spicy tuna roll. It is a solid choice and pretty reasonably priced ($4.50/8 pcs). We also had the unagi (freshwater eel) which is glazed in teriyaki sauce ($4.50/2pcs). Eel is a lot more chewy than fish and when mixed with the teriyaki sauce it is a taste and texture altogether different than most sushi, so it is a great contrast.

We also had my favorite, saba (mackerel) ($3.50/2 pcs). Mackerel has a strong and very distinct taste when eaten raw, and it has an unusual texture (it's more oily than say tuna or yellow tail). Again, it is a nice contrast to more basic choices.

Finally, we had a special order made for us, wasabi tobiko. Wasabi is the green stuff that comes with your sushi that you mix with soy sauce. It is in the same family as cabbage, horseradish, and mustard, and gives off heat like hot mustard that you sense more in your nose than on your tongue. Tobiko, of course, is flying fish roe (i.e. eggs). Wasabi tobiko involves marinating the roe until it is infused with wasabi, taking on the green color of the wasabi. It is then served in rice paper.

If you don't like spicy or hot foods, then this isn't for you. But if you do, or you like to at least try new things, try this. Eating roe is like eating tiny little beads, but when they are infused with wasabi they literally explode with flavor as you chew. The heat is bearable, but pretty intense and it will definitely clear your sinuses. Our serving was wonderful.

Ichiban has the usual variety of sushi on the a la carte menu, and there are a bunch of different lunch and dinner specials. We didn't have anything to drink, but Ichiban's has a full selection of sake (hot and cold) and plenty of beer, including Japanese favorites Sapporo and Kirin. I think they also serve plum wine, but I can't remember for sure.

People are very picky about their sushi. It is expensive and it is raw fish, so you want to be sure you are getting a good, fresh cut. I also have been to enough sushi bars and restaurants to know that being a regular has its privileges (depending on who is working at Ichiban my wife and I can get a wonderful hand roll or two specially created for us). That said, Ichiban is a very good place, the prices are pretty reasonable, and I have a ton of good memories from all my trips.

Here is a link to Ichiban's website -