Saturday, April 30, 2011

Trinity Restaurant

When I blogged about Pho Boston back in December a reader suggested that I try the Trinity Restaurant on Zion Street. I put it on my HFG to do list, but I never got around to it, probably because Mrs. HFG and I left for London 3 weeks later and things got crazy when we got back.

A couple of weeks ago, however, a friend told me that he and his girlfriend had been there for dinner and loved it. No doubt seeking to latch on to the rising fame and fortune of the HFG (:p) he offered to go back with me so I could check it out.

I was intrigued, not only because a reader and a friend had recommended it, but also because my friend told me the place was operated by an Albanian family and I was really interested to see what Albanian cuisine was all about. On Thursday Mrs. HFG was out of town on business, so my friend and I went for dinner. Although I was pretty disappointed when I read the menu and saw that the cuisine was really more Italian-inspired new American cuisine and not ethnic Albanian food, I wasn’t at all disappointed in the experience.

I started with an order of steamed mussels in a tomato and garlic broth/sauce. The mussels had good flavor and had been properly cleaned. The tomato and garlic sauce was ok and added some flavor, but did not overwhelm the mussels. All in all, it was a good way to start the meal.

My friend had an order of calamari with cocktail sauce. While I can’t say it was the best plate of calamari I’ve ever seen, it was certainly a good dish. The calamari was crisp, but not over-fried, and the cocktail sauce added just enough flavor. Again, it was a solid choice.

For dinner I had lamb oso buco, which was a play on a traditional veal oso buco dish, right down to the risotto. Probably even more than veal, lamb can be tough, so cooking it in the oso buco fashion (browned with either butter, oil, or lard, then braised with white wine and a meat broth flavored with veggies) is a great way to tenderize. Our chef did a great job with the generous lamb shank I was served and the meat was tender and had a wonderful flavor.

My risotto was OK, though Mrs. HFG’s is much, much better. I did, however, have a nice portion of steamed asparagus, which were not overdone, nor weighed down in a ton of butter. They had a nice flavor, which was accentuated by the flavor of the lamb shank under which they were sitting.

My friend had orescchiette (small, ring shaped pasta known as little ears) with some delicious spicy sausage in a tomato sauce with peppers and some broccoli rabe. I thought his dinner was very tasty and also very well-balanced. There were a lot of flavors working and they complemented each other quite nicely.

Although our dinner was pretty good, our deserts were excellent. At the recommendation of the proprietress, I had the tiramisu. In fact, with a smile and in her broken English she assured me that “we make the best tiramisu.” I don’t know about that, but it was damn good; rich without being too heavy and tasty without being too sugary.

My friend didn’t order dessert, but that didn’t stop the proprietress from bringing him some nice crème brulee. I don’t think it was quite up to the standard of the tiramisu, but it was very good and a happy ending to a delicious meal.

Total tab, including tip, came to just north of $85 – not cheap, but still a pretty reasonable price.

As you can see from the picture, the outside of the TR is nothing to write home about. That shouldn’t scare anyone away, however, as the interior is very cheery, with light colors and nice wooden furniture. It isn’t fancy, but it is comfortable. The service is solid and what its owners lack in restaurant expertise, they more than make up for in positive energy, work ethic, and frankly love for their customers and their cooking.

TR isn’t fine dining, but its menu is definitely a cut or two above your basic neighborhood restaurant. The food is very good, the service solid, and the atmosphere upbeat. It’s easy to see why it is a favorite of Trinity students and professors (several parties filed in as we were eating).

The only negative is a complete and utter lack of parking, save open spots along Zion Street. While that isn’t an issue if you are walking from the Trinity campus, it could make it a bit tough if you are coming from elsewhere.

All-in-all I was glad my friend and I went to TR. We had a very good meal at a reasonable price and Mrs. HFG and I will go back – as soon as I clear some other places off the HFG “to do” list. :>

I couldn’t find a website, but here is a link to a map and some reviews -

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Hot Tomato's

When I started this blog I knew there would come a day when I would have to visit Hot Tomato’s in Downtown. It’s not that there is anything wrong with Hot Tomato’s, it’s that its former owner Tom Altman was someone with whom I had done some business over the years and someone I considered a friend.

Even though Tom was not a cook, he was a very savvy businessman with a good sense of what people wanted to eat, and he built a small empire of restaurants. Tom’s death a few years ago was a devastating tragedy for many, many people and ultimately his restaurants were sold, one by one, to new owners.

I had been in Hot Tomato’s several times while it remained in Tom’s family after his death, but it never felt right. Something, or more accurately, someone, was missing.

Honestly, I was not looking forward to going back because I couldn’t help but think of Tom when I had gone to Hot Tomato’s after he had passed. That said, new ownership was giving it a go, I hadn’t been back since they took over, several of my regular readers have been asking me to go there for quite some time, and life does go on, even if people we once knew and cared about are no longer with us. Thus, my wife and I decided to go there Saturday night for dinner.

Hot Tomato’s is appended to Union Station. It is an unusual space, with a big central dining area and bar occupying an add-on to the station, a kitchen and smaller dining area just to the north of the central dining area and within the station itself and just south of the hall of the station, and a small (and very nice) private dining room that opens off the area with the kitchen.

New ownership has freshened the place up considerably, but those familiar with the “old” Hot Tomato’s won’t be shocked by the décor or interior layout. Frankly, I think they did a great job of changing the feel of the restaurant just enough to put their own stamp on it without losing completely that familiar Hot Tomato’s feel.

We started with an order of Hot Tomato’s famous garlic bread, except it wasn’t. The “traditional” Hot Tomato’s garlic bread was made on Italian scali-type bread, with plenty of garlic and cheese. Our bread was more of a baguette, with not very much garlic at all, and a lot more cheese.

Unfortunately, the garlic bread was pretty ordinary. I am sure there was a sense that a new twist needed to be put on the menu, which is true, but I would not have changed a signature menu item.

We also split a chopped salad. The portion was enormous (more than enough for two) and the salad was pretty good, with crisp romaine, apples, cucumber, bacon, and a few other things. It was, however, way overdressed, which really detracted from the experience even though the dressing (which had a hint of mustard) was pretty good.

For dinner Mrs. HFG had the Brooklyn ragu with 2 meatballs over fettuccini and I had the lobster fra diavlo over fettuccini. Both portions were more than generous, though neither meal was outstanding.

The lobster fra diavlo could have been very good (they did not skimp on the lobster :>) but for the fact that the garlic was burned and that they either added the fettuccini after everything else had cooked or the plate had sat in the pass for too long. The problem was that much of the spice and flavor was at the bottom of the dish, either dragged down by the moisture of the lobster, or the result of simply having plopped the pasta on top of the rest of the dish (rather than adding the pasta for the last bit of cooking so as to let it become infused with the flavors of the dinner).

My wife’s dinner was more problematic. The meatballs were OK, but nothing special, as there was some flavor but not a whole lot. The ragu was a very simple tomato sauce with not much else going on, including an absence of basil or oregano (“Italian food for beginners,” grumbled Mrs. HFG).

One positive note on both dinners was that the pasta was cooked correctly and not overdone.

The total tab for dinner (including bottled water, 2 beers for me, and a glass of wine for Mrs. HFG), including tip, was $119 - pricy for the quality.

Our server was very friendly and hard-working. She was also pretty young and inexperienced, however. Still, she did a solid job, even if she lacked polish.

The new Hot Tomato’s is like the old Hot Tomato’s in as much as it is still a good casual dining spot with a sort of upscale feel. The menu has changed, but a lot of old favorites remain (or have been changed only a little).

It still isn’t fine dining, however, nor is it a perfect causal experience either as there is a lot of work to be done on the execution side. That said, they are working hard to keep the Hot Tomato’s legacy going, and you ought to give them a try, and their shot.

Here’s a link to the website -

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Fire -n- Spice

I had Friday off, but because Mrs. HFG had to work I was again on my own. Just because my wife is working, however, doesn’t mean she doesn’t provide me with a delicious meal. While that usually means her leaving something good in the refrigerator, yesterday it meant taking her advice and checking out Fire -n- Spice on Sisson Avenue in Hartford (a couple of doors south of the relatively well known Half Door pub).

FNS is a very different type of place, especially for the HFG, because it is one of the very few vegan restaurants in the area. The HFG is a carnivore, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate at least some of what vegan cooking is about. As I wrote while Mrs. HFG and I were London, you don’t have to be a tree-hugger to appreciate fresh food that isn’t loaded with preservatives and other chemicals.

FNS is also probably different than most vegan restaurants because it specializes in Jamaican and other Caribbean dishes. In fact, when you walk into FNS you seen an eclectic mix of pictures, paintings, and wall-hangings that are about half the earthy crunchy stuff you’d expect in a vegan place and about half what you’d expect to see in a place that serves food from the West Indies (including several portraits of Haile Selassie, the last emperor of Ethiopia and the person whom Rastafarians believe is the Messiah).

One of the interesting things about FNS is that there are menu items you have to pre-order well in advance because they take so long to prepare. My visit was definitely impromptu, so I was limited to the buffet items they have ready if you walk in off the street.

I had the 5 dish special ($10.95), which allowed me to choose 5 items from the buffet. After some deliberation, I picked the jerked tofu; yellow curried potatoes; red beans and rice; a stew based around beans, peas, and sweet potatoes; and mixed veggies with carrots and red and green peppers; and what seemed to be shallots or leeks. Like all good organic food, all five dishes were fresh, with very strong and clean flavor profiles.

Jerked tofu was a very different experience, but a very good one. I’ve had jerked chicken, pork, and even goat, but jerked tofu is different because of the big difference in texture. That said, the jerked seasoning was powerful and had tons of flavor – exactly as it ought to be.

The yellow curried potatoes also packed a pretty good punch. I don’t know that it was up to the standards you’d find in a good Indian restaurant, but it was delicious nonetheless.

The stew was outstanding. Most stews are based around some sort of flesh and bone, which gives it so much of its flavor (and which it is why it takes so long to stew). This stew, of course, didn’t have any meat but it still had a good rich flavor that was offset quite nicely by the sweet potatoes. (Here’s a hint, the red beans and rice were on my plate to soak up the stew :>).

The mixed veggies were also very good, with plenty of fresh crunch, as well as a good flavor from some sort of marinade.

For desert I had sweet potato pudding, which was the consistency of a thick flan. The taste was pretty subtle, but very nice and a good way to end a delicious meal. I also had a whole foods ginger ale, for a total tab of $15.95. It wasn’t cheap, but it was delicious.

FNS also offers vegan cooking classes, as well as a catering service. The HFG isn’t going to give up eating meat, but he will go back to Fire -n- Spice. Here’s the link to the website -

Friday, April 22, 2011

Aladdin Halal

I've been out of commission recently with work and other real-life issues. Suffice it to say, however, the HFG is back and even hungier than usual.

Mrs. HFG has been even busier, so I've been on my own for dinner a lot lately. A few days ago I decided to hit an old favorite, Aladdin Halal on Allyn Street in Downtown. (As an aside, Aladdin calls itself a halal because its menu and preparations are in accordance with Islamic dietary law as set out in the Koran. Think kosher, and then translate from Judaism to Islam).

Going back through some recent posts, I noticed I'd been talking a lot lately about how Hartford has seen better days. I don't think that's debatable, but that's not to say that it is without hope, or that there aren't any opportunities here.

Indeed, there are people who still come to Hartford from all over the world because they view it as holding out more promise than wherever it is they are coming from. Aladdin’s owner, Mohammed Agha, is one such person.

Agha came to Connecticut from Egypt to finish his engineering studies at the University of New Haven but a new wife and a baby forced him to make other plans. Taking over what had been a mediocre and very unsuccessful pizza and grinder shop, Agha turned it into exactly the sort of place you can find only in America; an Egyptian-owned restaurant serving pizza, grinders, and food from all over the Middle East and Greece.

I’ve had much (if not most) of the Middle Eastern/Greek food on Aladdin’s menu and it’s all very good. Still, however, I was tired and hungry when I got there so I didn’t muck around trying to figure out what I wanted, I just ordered one of my favorites - a side of dolma ($4.99) and the Koufta kabob combo ($11.99).

For the uninitiated, Dolma are stuffed grape leaves. There are a bunch of ways to do, but around here, I don’t think anyone does it better than Aladdin, who uses rice, parsley, chopped onions, tomatoes, and herbs. The grape leaves are steamed, then wrapped around the filling and topped with a generous portion of a lemon sauce. While grape leaves are a bit tough, steaming them and coating them in lemon sauces definitely softens them just enough to provide a great contrast to the filling. The filling is a nice balance of flavors that really unfold as you chew. Delicious.

Koufta is ground lamb, seasoned with onions, parsley, and spices. It is cooked on a skewer, over a spit, just like any other kebab and I think provides a bit more flavor than your basic kebab, though the texture is different, mostly because the lamb has been ground then re-formed, rather than sliced from the bone then skewered (don’t worry, Aladdin has lamb and chicken kebabs for the less adventuresome).

What’s nice about ordering the kebab combo is that you not only get a generous portion of freshly cooked and delicious meat, you also get a nice salad and some hummus and pita.

As I said, I have had most of the Middle Eastern food on Aladdin’s menu and it is all pretty delicious. One favorite, however, is the sautéed foul madammaz ($5.99). It is a combination of fava beans, garlic, tomato, onion, parsley, cumin, and olive oil (with a nice side of pita to mop it all up and into your mouth :> x 10).

I also like the tabouleh ($4.99) which is parsley salad with wheat bulgur, diced tomato, onion, mint, and a fresh lemon dressing. It is very refreshing on a warm day, which is probably how it became a staple of Middle Eastern cooking.

While the inside of Aladdin is nothing special (it did, after all, start life as a pizza place) the people who work there are exceptionally friendly and very hardworking; proof that at least some people still see in Hartford the same opportunity that has brought people here for almost 400 years.

Aladdin is not fine dining. It isn’t even a family restaurant. It’s really just a pizza place which has a Middle Eastern restaurant grafted on to it; a made in a America special that is well worth the trip.

Here's the link to Aladdin's website -