Thursday, March 31, 2011

Feng Asian Bistro

The stretch of Asylum Street between Main and Trumbull has seen much better days. Now it just is surface parking on one side and a hodge-podge of old buildings and an ugly parking garage on the other. As late as the 1980’s, however, the block was still anchored by the venerable men’s store, Stackpole Moore & Tryon at the Trumbull Street end and the Hartford-Aetna National Bank Building (Hartford’s first skyscraper) at the Main Street end.

Jammed in along that stretch is an ugly old five story building that had the bad luck of having its façade re-done at the worst possible time (somewhere between 1960-1980). For many years the building was the home of Song Hays, probably the worst Chinese restaurant in which it was ever my displeasure to eat. A few years ago, however, the Ginza Restaurant Group gutted the place and opened Feng Asian Bistro, which has been a very welcome addition to the Hartford culinary scene.

Feng is all about Asian fusion. You will find some traditional Japanese fare (like a delicious bowl of miso soup), but really the cuisine is a mix of Japanese and western elements, techniques, and styles. The combinations are interesting, and by and large delicious. We have been there several times before (mostly with friends) and we haven’t been disappointed.

After being seated in the booth at the right in the picture, Mrs. HFG and I decided to open the festivities by ordering two “flights” of sake, each consisting of three different types of cold sake. In the interest of full disclosure, I love hot sake, but I am not a big fan of cold sake. Still, it looked interesting on the menu.

My trio ($13) consisted of three different traditional cold sakes, ranging from very dry to somewhat sweet. Somewhat like a Japanese baby bear, I thought the dry sake was too dry, the sweet sake too sweet, and the middle sake was just about right. Honestly, I don’t know that I’d order the Sake flight again, but I’m not sorry I tried it. You only live once, right?

My wife’s trio ($14) consisted of three different flavors of sake, though almost immediately after setting it down our waiter returned with a fourth cup and apologized because the bartender hand mis-poured one of the favors. She liked all four, though I did not care for them.

My wife started with a delicious bowl of miso soup with mushrooms and scallions ($6). Miso soup is made with miso paste, which is a combination of fermented rice, barley, or soybeans (most often soybeans) with salt and a particular fungus. The miso paste is then mixed with dashi, which is the quintessential Japanese stock and can be made with a variety of ingredients, though traditionally with dried kelp and dried flakes of tuna, put in water and brought to a boil then strained. The thing about miso soup is that the flavor is supposed to be there, but it should be very mild. The consistency has to be thicker than broth, but not too much. Thus, Miso soup is actually an easy dish to make badly. My wife’s soup, however, was very well balanced in terms of flavor and consistency.

I started with the duck spring rolls ($7) with a hoisin dipping sauce served with some shoestring sweet potato fries. I thought the duck was well done (i.e. not too gamey) and that the shoestring fries were a nice compliment, not only in terms of flavor and texture, but also adding an essentially Western element to the dish.

For dinner Mrs. HFG had the Dynamite Roll ($18), which is a great example of Feng’s fusion cooking. It consists of tempura jumbo soft-shell crab, spicy salmon, jalapeño and romaine lettuce inside and was topped with spicy tuna, shredded crispy kani with momiji sauce, eel sauce, and honey wasabi. Yes, that’s a ton of flavors and textures, not all of which are part of Japanese cuisine, and it would have been quite easy for that dinner to have gone off the rails. It didn’t. Frankly, my wife’s meal was delicious and a real medley of flavors and textures that combined and re-combined with different bites.

I had the rack of lamb ($37), which is about as fusion as it gets, right? My lamb was prepared in a spiced cider reduction with local carrots, parsnips, turnips, and pearl onions. It was quite good and the lamb was tender and cooked perfectly to the chef’s recommendation (medium rare).

I am not usually a fan of fusion cooking because it’s often an excuse for someone who hasn’t mastered even one type of cooking to try to cover that up by mixing two different types of cuisine. Often, the results are unspectacular (and sometimes even disastrous) but the chef hides behind how clever he (or she) supposedly is being by playing mix and match and acting like you are a gourmand if you don’t “get” it. That said, Feng does fusion right, with a strong base in well-prepared Japanese cuisine mixed intelligently with Western elements.

About the only bad thing I can say about Feng was that the service was not tight. The food moved out of the kitchen quickly and our table was cleared very efficiently, but our waiter had a less than complete knowledge of the menu, a bottle of Pellegrino took so long to appear that my wife was sure they had sent to Italy for it, and, as noted, the bartender put the wrong sake in my wife's trio. Still, our waiter was friendly and hardworking, so I can't be overly critical, but it is small things like that which separate a good experience from a great one.

Even though Feng is one of several places in the area (and Massachusetts) owned and operated by the Ginza Restaurant Group you do not get the feel you are eating in a chain, albeit a high- class chain. No, it definitely has a unique feel and is perfectly adapted to its space (which is very New York, being much longer than it is wide) with a great mix of colors, accents, and textures that contributes effectively to the Asian fusion theme without being tacky.

On the whole, however, my wife and I had a good meal and a good time. While dinner was by no means cheap ($112 including tip), it was a very fair price to pay for a very solid meal. Feng is quite different than most restaurants in the area, and the food is quite good, which means Mrs. HFG and I will be going back when our palletes need a challenge and a change of pace.

Here's the link to Feng's page on the Ginza Group website -

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Tamarind Grill & Bar

We are lucky to have more than one good Thai restaurant in the area from which we can choose. That said, and with no disrespect to the East West Grill on New Park Ave in Elmwood (which is really, really good), my wife and I are partial to Tamarind Grill on Pratt Street in Downtown. In fact, this review is long overdue because my wife and I go there a lot (and we also get delivery from there pretty regularly) and we have had many, many delicious meals.

We went again on Friday after work, and I resolved that this would be the trip I would blog about.

Let’s start with the disclaimer; Thai food is obviously very different than what most Americans eat most (if not all) of the time, especially in terms of what the phrase “hot and spicy” means. Indeed, much (if not most) Thai food is a real challenge to the western palate. That’s a good thing, however, because there is a lot more to life (and food) than eating nachos, fried chicken, and hamburgers.

I started with a bowl of the Tom Ka Gai soup. At $4, it is a ridiculous bargain. It consists of chicken in lime leaves, coconut milk, tofu, and red pepper. It has great flavor and is very spicy (the Tamarind menu gives it a 1 pepper spicy hot rating, though I think most people not familiar with Thai food would give it 2), though the coconut milk and tofu do a nice job of balancing out the heat of the dish. I also like the Tom Yum Goong soup ($5), which is a hot and sour soup with prawn (think shrimp) with lemon grass, tofu, and red pepper.

My wife and also split an order of pork dumplings ($7.50). Mrs. HFG thinks Tamarind makes the best dumplings around, and I can’t argue with that assessment. The dumpling itself has a great texture and is never, ever, rubbery, which you sometimes see. The filling is delicious, with steamed pork, sesame, cilantro, and some chili sauce, for kick. Outstanding. It is also served with a soy-based dipping sauce which adds some flavor and moisture.

For dinner, I had the beef hot pot ($15). It is not my all-time favorite Tamarind offering (the mango beef probably is, see below) but it is delicious. More importantly, you can’t get it delivered (nobody is going to carry piping hot stoneware 4 blocks just so the HFG can have a hot pot :<).

One note, both the beef and chicken hot pots are rated as 2 pepper symbols hot on the Tamarind menu, and I agree with that assessment. Still, it is an outstanding choice and you should let the 2 pepper rating scare you away.

My wife had the green curry ($12) (another 2 pepper hot dish, again with good reason) over brown rice. The green curry is a bit different than the sort of curry you’d get in an Indian restaurant as it is thinner, with much more liquid. Still, it is hot and delicious. Tamarind’s green curry is made with chicken, eggplant, peppers, onion, basis leaves, sugar snap peas and bamboo shoots, which are a great balance of textures and which all become infused with the flavor of the curry.

Mrs. HFG and I have had most (if not all) of the food on the menu at one time or another and your really can’t go wrong, regardless of what you end up ordering. One recommendation, however, especially for the more timid; try the mango beef.

The sweetness of the mango cuts the spices and the red, green, and yellow peppers used in the dish. This makes it bit different than a lot of the menu, but it would be a great choice for a beginner and you would still get a great taste of Thai cooking.

One of the best parts about the food at Tamarind is that it is not heavy. You can eat a large (and delicious) meal and not feel stuffed or overloaded. This is the result of them not using a lot of grease or fatty food in their cooking and it also allows the flavors to really pop. While fried foot can be great, there is something really special about flavor profiles that are simply and cleanly prepared.

The service at Tamarind is friendly and hardworking and they are able to deal pretty effectively with the flood of customers who show up every day at lunchtime (seriously, if you go there for lunch after 12 or before about 1:30, be prepared to wait to be seated). Tamarind is a popular spot with people who work in the office buildings Downtown, especially the 20-something crowd, who seem to favor it as a spot for a lunch date. In the evenings, the restaurant is much less crowded, though it is rarely ever even close to empty.

An added plus at Tamarind is the bar. It may not look like much, but it is pretty well-stocked and, more importantly, the people behind it can make a variety of excellent cocktails, ranging from a mai tai, which you would expect, to a margarita, which you would not, to a Manhattan, which I certainly didn't expect (I had two with dinner on Friday :> x 5).

Tamarind is a great place. The food is excellent, the people who work there are very capable and among the most welcoming and friendly in the area, and the prices are very fair. That’s a tough combination to beat.

In fact, about the only negative thing I can say about Tamarind is that, because it is on Pratt Street, there’s not a lot of parking in the immediate vicinity. That, of course, doesn’t matter if you work or live Downtown, but I could see where it would be a pain in the @ss if you don’t. That said, you shouldn’t let that stop you from making the trip, or at least stopping in the next time you go to the XL Center (only 1 block away), Hartford Stage or Theatre works (both 2 blocks away), or otherwise find yourself Downtown. You won’t be disappointed.

Here’s the link to Tamarind’s website -

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Polytechnic On20 Restaurant

Henry James wrote that Hartford was the richest little city in America. Indeed, as late as the 1970’s Hartford was not only the insurance capital of the world, it was also a regional banking center (when there were still regional banks) and home to Colt Firearms and Royal Typewriter.

Those days are long gone, of course. In fact, even the venerable Hartford Club is no longer the preserve of the WASP-elite (who are all pretty much gone too), but rather a business club for lawyers, middle-managers, and other haut-bourgeoisie types with just enough money, education, and status to pass for rich and powerful in a town that has seen much better days.

Still, however, there is one place that really harkens back to the days when tiny Hartford was a national city; the Polytechnic On20 Restaurant (“Polytechnic” being derived from the Polytechnic Club, which used to occupy the location). Located (you guessed it) on the 20th floor of the Hartford Steam Boiler building (One State Street for all you GPS geeks), On20 is about as fine as fine dining gets in this area.

On20 is open Monday thru Friday for lunch, and Friday nights for cocktails and dinner. It also hosts many high-level events and major political fundraisers. I have been there for lunch several times and it is impressive, above and beyond the food and service. We are talking power-lunch to about the 9th power.

Indeed, I have seen Congressman John Larson lunching there, listening carefully to serious looking white-haired men talk about who knows what and more or less every table is packed with similarly-stern gentlemen (and the occasional lady) who are no doubt moving and shaking, at least to the extent that anyone moves and shakes in Hartford anymore.

Let’s put it this way, if you go to Max Downtown for lunch, you will see many leading lawyers, stockbrokers, and upper-middle management types from the insurance companies. If you go to On20, you will see the folks that the people eating at Max Downtown work for.

My wife and I decided to go there to celebrate my birthday, but there was no room in the inn the last two weeks, so we couldn’t get a table until last night (don’t they know who the HFG is?!?!?). It was, however, well worth the wait.

My wife started with an absolutely magnificent croque madame, comprised of a quail egg with a slice of ham on perfectly toasted bread with lovely melted French cheese. She thought it was one of the best appetizers she’s had in a very long time and I don’t disagree. Working with quail eggs is no easy thing as they are small and delicate and easily overwhelmed by other flavors. My wife’s dish, however, was perfectly balanced and a well-constructed bite resulted in four different textures (soft cheese, crunchy bread, chewy ham, and slimy egg yolk) and four different flavors (the sharp cheese, the delicious bread, the tangy ham, and the delicate quail egg) coming together in your mouth like a symphony. It was just magnificent and strong testimony to what an excellent chef can do with the most basic of ingredients. It also came with some delicious homemade chips, which was a great compliment from both a textural and taste point of view.

If you follow this blog you won’t be surprised that I had the charcuterie for my appetizer. It consisted of three very attractive preparations; pate, in a thin crust that reminded me of a spring roll; fois gras (:> x 10) bounded by the thinnest of crusts on two sides, and a what looked like a very mild pepperoni or salami in a block (like you might serve fois gras or pate), but which was made from duck. It was absolutely outstanding.

For dinner, my wife had seared tuna over soba noodles, straw mushrooms, and peppers, in a savory sauce. We both thought her dinner was quite nice, with an excellent balance of flavors and textures. In fact, Chef Noel Jones is a master at mixing his textures and flavors to produce subtle and delicious combinations that really unfold as you eat. At first, my wife was only moderately impressed, but as she got deeper into the dish she begin to see (and taste) the medley that Chef Jones had created.

I had the medallions of venison au juis, with head cheese in a green sauce (the color of the wasabi paste served with sushi, though there was no wasabi in it) that tasted of either spring onions or leeks (probably spring onions, since they would have given the sauce its color). I have had venison before and even when it is properly prepared it tends to be a bit tough and gamey. Not last night. Cooked medium rare (to the chef’s recommendation) it was wonderfully tender and with the juis and the sauce quite flavorful.

I won’t lie, I was excited to try head cheese based on the recommendation of Anthony Bourdain. For the uninitiated, head cheese isn’t cheese at all, but rather a terrine or meat jelly made with flesh from the head (though usually not the brain, eyes, or ears) of a calf, a pig, a sheep, or even a cow, and often set in aspic, which is a gelatin made from consommé or meat-stock. Sadly, it didn’t live up to Bourdain’s hype. The texture was soft and not particularly chewy, which was a good contrast to the venison, but I didn’t pick up a whole lot of flavor.

Still, my dinner was excellent and I have no complaints.

With our dinner we ordered a bottle of Washington state cab, called Pitch. At about $40, it was a perfectly satisfactory selection. Actually, for the price it was very nice with a great nose (lots of cherry) and a wonderful hint of cinnamon.

For desert, my wife had the cheese plate, which came with a selection of French cheeses, crackers, and delicious, but not overly sweet, honey (which cut the sharpness of the cheese quite nicely). One of the cheeses was particularly pungent and while I wouldn’t eat it on a regular basis, with a little honey on a cracker, it was great way to challenge the pallet.

I had the so-called cookies and cream, which was a small (but incredibly delicious) chocolate torte with a white chocolate mouse and a small two-layered chocolate cookie. It was fantastic (:> x 25).

I also had a cup of perfectly made cappuccino. That sounds like a small thing, but a lot of non-Italian restaurants (and, sadly, even a few Italian restaurants) can’t seem to do better than liquid drek when making cappuccino. On20, however, got it exactly right, which was a perfect way to end an excellent meal.

The service at On20 is impressive, though I have to say it seems just a bit tighter at lunch than it did at dinner last night. Still, the staff last night was prompt, efficient, polite, well-versed in the menu and the wine list, and well put-together. In fact, probably the worst thing I can say about it was that the hostess handed my coat to me before she handed Mrs. HFG’s coat to her. If that’s the low point, you are doing pretty well.

You only get a partial sense of it from the picture, but the view from On20 is spectacular, as it wraps around the south and west sides of the Steam Boiler Building, giving diners a view of downtown, the Travelers Tower, the Science Center and the Connecticut River. That alone makes it worth the trip. The décor in On20 is formal but relatively simple, which is good because it doesn’t detract from the food, the service, or the often very serious purpose for eating there.

My only real complaint about last evening was the other diners. When I posted about Max Downtown I went on a mini-diatribe about people who go to fine dining establishments “wearing jeans, sweaters, and sneakers, with their similarly attired bratty eight-year-olds in tow.” Last PM wasn’t quite that bad, but it wasn’t good either.

First, there were the young ladies wearing cocktail dresses that would have been too short for them when they were 12, let alone 22. Dear God.

They, however, were easily eclipsed by their gentleman (and I use that term loosely) friend, who wore his dress sneakers to compliment his blue blazer and dress slacks. He, in turn, was eclipsed by the doctor (or nurse) at the next table that came to dinner in his scrub shirt and a pair of khakis. By comparison, the half-dozen men scattered throughout the dining room wearing coats but not ties, or light colored suits (it’s only March!) seemed properly-attired.

Gentlemen, On20 is a first class place and it merits first class attire. Go rent Dr. No, Goldfinger, or any other classic Bond movie. You will see 007 wearing a dinner jacket, a bespoke (i.e. hand made) suit, a bathing suit, or nothing at all. We can’t all be Sean Connery, or even Roger Moore for that matter, but we can at least be better than Larry the Cable Guy.

In any event, On20 is serious dining. The food is complicated, the atmosphere quite formal, and the prices are high (dinner last night came to just north of $210, including taxes and a fixed 20% gratuity). That said, for a fine-dining experience you won’t do better in this area, especially at lunchtime and if you fancy yourself a foodie, or a mover and shaker, then you must go there.

Here's the link to On20 -

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Little Mark's Big BBQ

The HFG is not really a big fan of country music. In fact, I don't like it all, except for Johnny Cash, whom my maternal grandmother loved and always seemed to have playing on her record player when I was very little. So, in order to get me to sit somewhere for an hour and listen to cr*ppy country music (which these days is actually just bad top 40/soft rock made in Nashville, but that's another story) there has to be a really good reason.

Little Mark's Big BBQ in Vernon is a really good reason. Mrs. HFG and I have been going there off and on for a couple of years and if it isn't the best bbq place around, it can't be too far off.

We got there yesterday at about 5 PM and it was almost full (a good sign). We started with an order of gator tails ($6.95) which are, you guessed it, small chunks of alligator tail dipped in a flour-based batter and fried. If you've never had alligator, you really should try it. It is chewy (somewhere between say chicken and octopus) with a nice but not overly-strong flavor. Fried up, they are scrumptious little morsels, WHOOOO-WEE!! I had alligator many years ago when I visited a college girlfriend who was from Louisiana ("You're a purty nice fella" said her uncle in a thick accent I could barely understand, "for a Yankee") and this compares pretty well.

Mrs. HFG had the Beef Lovers Sampler ($17.95), which came with 2 beef ribs, shredded brisket, and burnt ends. You aslo get a side with the entrees and my wife had mac and cheese (which cost and extra $1). We both thought the mac and cheese was OK, but we both liked her dinner plate, though it was a just a touch dry (nothing that some bbq sauce couldn't cure) and the ribs seemed a bit over seasoned with a very spicy rub. Still, it was very good, especially the brisket, which we both loved.

I had the Pork Lovers Sampler ($17.95), which comes with a generous portion of pulled pork, 1/4 Rack and 2 Spare Ribs. I had the mashed potatoes, which are probably the best side out there (and provide a nice contrast in both flavor and texture to all the bbq). As with Mrs. HFG's dinner, we both thought the pork sampler was just a little dry (again, nothing that can't be cured with bbq sauce), though the pulled pork was very good.

Once of the best parts of Little Mark's is the selection of bbq sauces. My wife and I both prefer the hot sauce, which has a nice flavor and good heat and I think the Carolina vinegar sauce is also pretty good. We both find the sweet sauce way too sweet, however.

Also of note, Little Mark's has an extra hot sauce, which you can request on the side. That is really, really HOT! and not for the faint of heart (or stomach). It is fun to try, but I think it's a bit too much for regular consumption (and I like hot and spicy food).

The atmosphere at Little Mark's is very blue-collar and down to earth and the staff is friendly and hardworking - about what you'd expect at a bbq place. The menu is pretty extensive (at least in terms of bbq!), with many combinations of chicken, beef, pork, brisket, burnt ends, and even some catfish and shrimp.

Little Mark's isn't the best bbq place in the world, but for these parts, it's a pretty good taste of southern fare and it's a lot of fun, even if you have to listen to country music while you eat. Here's the link to Little Mark's website -