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: