Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Peppercorn's Grill

Last week was Mrs. HFG's birthday, so on Saturday we decided to celebrate by going to Peppercorn's Grill on Main Street, right at the edge of Downtown (just north of the intersection of Main and Buckingham Street). For those that don’t know, Peppercorn's has been around since 1989 and has won many local awards and has a very loyal following. Although Peppercorn’s is a good restaurant, the HFG just doesn't see how it can be ranked among the best in Hartford, let alone the area, or how it consistently wins so many local awards.

I know that what I just wrote is probably the most controversial thing I've said in a long time ("There's only 1 reason to go to West Hartford Center to eat and that's the Shish Kebab House of Afghanistan" is probably the most controversial). I also know that what I just wrote won't make any of my Downtown friends and neighbors too happy (many of whom are regulars at, or at least strong supporters of, this neighborhood institution). That said, neither the food nor the service (nor the atmosphere for that matter) at Peppercorn's is top notch.

To start, I had stuffed artichokes with escargot ($12) which were delicious. I thought they balanced each other quite well and that the taste of the artichokes did not overwhelm the escargot.

Mrs. HFG had the lobster bisque ($11). It was fine, but certainly not spectacular.

We also had a salad course, with my wife ordering a chopped salad ($7) and me ordering the special salad ($11). My wife’s salad was overdressed, but otherwise OK.

My salad, however, was good. It consisted of field greens, melon, caramelized walnuts, vanilla, and goat cheese with a vinaigrette dressing. The goat cheese was particularly memorable, as were the walnuts. It was, however, a tad heavy on the vanilla, which made an otherwise great salad merely good.

For dinner I had the ossobuco, which was braised with white wine, herbs, garlic, lemon zest, porcini mushroom essence, and a gremolata ($27). If you know the HFG, you know he loves ossobuco and I thought Peppercorn’s offering stacked up fairly well, though both Mrs. HFG and I thought there was some grit in the demiglaze, which bespoke of using a veal base to hasten the process (:< x 5). Still, it was pretty good.

Mrs. HFG had the risotto del giorno ($26). Mrs. HFG really appreciated the fact that they used fresh corn, which added some great flavor, and she liked the overall taste. She was, however, correct to point out that the consistency was off, being far too stiff; not the end of the world, but not exactly Michelin Star material either.

My wife and I couldn’t agree on red or white wine, so we went our separate ways, with her ordering 2 glasses of the Berendaga chianti ($10/glass) and me ordering 2 glasses of the Groth sauvignon ($9/glass). My wine was good, but not memorable, but I thought Mrs. HFG’s chianti had a great nose and taste to match.

We had cake at home leftover from a small party some of Mrs. HFG’s friends had thrown for her the night before, so we skipped desert.

While our dinner was pretty good, the service was below average, which is completely unacceptable in a fine dining establishment. Our server was overly familiar, not overly energetic, not particularly well-versed in the menu, and made a rather sarcastic remark as I was taking some notes as she was reciting the specials (one of the notes I made was “make sure to mention that the server made a sarcastic remark while I was writing down what I wanted to eat”). Not good, though I will say the other servers in the dining room seemed to move faster and have a better knowledge of the menu, including the one who told the table near us that the soft shell crabs were fresh (at least from the fish market) that day (“had I known that,” grumbled Mrs. HFG, “that’s what I would have ordered for my appetizer”). Perhaps we were just unlucky, but good service in a good restaurant shouldn’t be a matter of luck.

The atmosphere at Peppercorn’s is, I think, supposed to be evocative of a romantic Italian trattoria, with deep tones, low lighting, and cozy seating. It has those things, but frankly the interior is tired, the seating is somewhat cramped, and the place is noisy. I will admit, however, that the new dining area (in the space where Spiritus used to be before it moved to Asylum Street) is much more spacious and fresh, and also that having that extra room does cut down a bit on the noisiness of the original dining area. That new room, however, still doesn’t do all that much for you if you are sitting (as we were) in the old dining area.

Total tab, including an adequate (but by no means generous) tip, came to $172.22; expensive for the overall experience.

After reading this, you might be thinking that Peppercorn's is not that good, or you might be thinking that the HFG is crazy. One is true. Yes, the HFG might have one or two screws loose (:> x 5) but no, he's not saying that Peppercorn's isn't good. He's saying it's just it isn't great either.

Here’s the link to their website - http://www.peppercornsgrill.com/

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Waterfront Grille

Although the HFG is by no means a food snob, there is one type of cuisine about which I am extremely picky; fish. Growing up on the Atlantic Ocean, I have a very different definition of “fresh fish” than most people, including those who might live only 40 or 50 miles inland (i.e. pretty much everyone around here).

In fact, I once insulted the proprietor of one of the area’s best restaurants in a conversation about this very subject. The proprietor recommended to me a particular fish dish, assuring me that it was “fresh” and full of flavor. I asked what “fresh” meant and was proudly told it had been bought at the area’s #1 fish market that same day. With a sigh, I said “then it’s not fresh, is it?”

You see, other than fish you go out and catch yourself, the only “fresh” Atlantic fish is that which is bought on the pier and served the same day. There are a few places inland that make a point of appearing on the docks in the morning to buy some of the daily catch and then racing it back to the restaurant to be served later that day, but they are few and far between. Mostly, what you get in a good restaurant inland is fish bought from a market that day, which (hopefully) they bought off the docks a day or two before that.

Why this matters so much is that fish spoils at a far faster pace than beef, pork, or poultry, so it’s really a race against time once it hits the docks. While the “fresh” fish you’re likely to eat around here is by no means spoiled, it has deteriorated enough that a good amount of its flavor is gone by the time it hits your plate here in Hartford (or West Hartford or Glastonbury, for that matter).

This is all a very long introduction to the Waterfront Grille in my hometown of New Bedford, MA, where the HFG took his mom for lunch on Mother’s Day last week. There are two things I like about the Waterfront Grille. First, it is literally on the waterfront. You can look out at some of the fishing boats that are tied up and you can almost see the State Pier where the catches are sold off as they come in. It’s not fancy, but it is a special kind of ambiance that reminds you where you meal is coming from and the hard work it takes to get it on to your plate.

Second, and more importantly, 85% of the seafood served at the Waterfront Grille is bought at the pier that same day (the other 15% is from the day before). Now that’s fresh.

To start, I had a plate of fried oysters ($11). They were delicious and bursting with flavor and not overly coated in batter before they were dropped in the frialator. Severed with a bit of lemon and a nice tartar sauce, they were wonderful.

For lunch my mother had a Bloody Mary (go mom!) and the baked stuff shrimp ($19) with brown rice and roasted carrots. The presentation was quite nice but the brown rice was nothing special. In fact, it was pretty ordinary. That said, the roasted carrots were tasty and the baked stuff shrimp was amazing. The shrimp were large, there were plenty of them, and they were bursting with flavor. Fortunately, the seasonings and stuffing (made with crab meat :> x 10) didn’t crowd out the flavor of the shrimp.

My father had orange ginger scallops with roasted carrots and spinach ($18). The spinach was almost wilted, but his main plate looked absolutely amazing as it was studded with a number of massive scallops, slightly browned from having been expertly pan seared. Unfortunately, the HFG is deathly allergic to scallops so I couldn’t taste them, but my father assured me that they were outstanding as he worked feverishly to clear his plate.

My stepfather had a seafood salad ($12) which consisted of mixed greens and shrimp, scallops, and lump crab. The salad didn’t look particularly special, but again the seafood did. The scallops and shrimp looked large and juicy and there appeared to be plenty of lump crab. Like my dad, my stepfather assured me that his lunch was delicious as he shoveled the generous portions of seafood into his mouth.

The HFG had the swordfish ($19) in a sun dried tomato pesto and lemon basil aioli, with roasted carrots and wasabi mashed potatoes. The presentation was pretty ambitious for a dockside joint but the chef pulled it off quite nicely. The swordfish was wonderfully fresh, not overcooked, and bursting with flavor that was complimented (but not overwhelmed) by the pesto and aioli. The mashed potatoes were pretty good, but I thought the wasabi was unevenly mixed into my portion, which was a bit strange. I also had a glass of Portuguese white wine ($7) that was OK but not memorable.

The interior Waterfront Grille is nothing special. It is a big room sparsely appointed which sits on a pier. The service, while enthusiastic, is not great. It does, however, serve delicious fish and other seafood and that makes it well worth the trip. They also serve some meat and poultry dishes (the menu is almost the mirror of image of most places – 20 or 30 fish and seafood entrees with a half dozen meat and poultry offerings), but if you go there and order off the non- seafood part of the menu then someone should slap you in the head. Seriously.

There really is not a whole lot of reason to go to New Bedford other than to visit the Whaling Museum or take the ferry to the islands, but if you find yourself there, or the next time you are heading to Cape Cod, stop off at the Waterfront Grille. If you do, you’ll have a nice little meal and you’ll find what fresh fish tastes like. Here’s the link to the Waterfront Grille website - http://www.waterfrontgrille.com/

Sunday, May 1, 2011


As shocking as this may sound, I don’t make millions by being the HFG. I do, however, at least have the benefit of a pretty steady stream of restaurant recommendations from friends and regular readers.

On Friday, a friend and former co-worker called me and said he had found the best Greek restaurant in the area. That sounded interesting, so he picked me up at my office and we took a drive down the Berlin Turnpike to Cavos, which is on the east (northbound) side, just north of the Stop & Shop plaza.

Honestly, if it had been almost any other friend, I would have been pretty nervous because the Berlin Turnpike is one of the most God-awful places around and among the least likely places in the area to find something good to eat . The original highway between Hartford and New Haven, the Turnpike was among the first victims of sprawl and there isn’t a whole lot on the Turnpike these days except chains, chains, and more chains.

My friend, however, is a true Italian-American and a practitioner of la dolce vita. He has a genuine love of good food and wine so I was confident that he had somehow found a diamond of a restaurant among the rough of 2nd rate chain stores and no-tell motels.

The interior of Cavos is nothing special. In fact, it is a bit dark and cramped. The service, however, lightened it up considerably as our waitress was friendly, prompt, and high-energy.

Although Cavos has a full menu with all sorts of classic Greek dishes, my friend and I decided to order several small plates for a tapas-style lunch that would allow us to sample a bunch of different things. To start, my friend and I ordered some spanakopita.

The pastry was perfect – light and flaky. The spinach was fresh and not overcooked so as to be wilted and tasteless. The contrast in textures and flavors was wonderful.

We also had an order of tyrokafteri, which is baked block of feta with tomatoes, red peppers, and garlic. While baking cheese sounds strange, doing so seems to take the edge off the flavor of the feta, which would otherwise be overpowering in such a large concentration. It also allows some of the flavor from the peppers, tomatoes, and garlic to find its way into the feta. Delicious.

We also had a skewer of pork souvlaki and a skewer of chicken souvlaki. Sometimes people cooking flesh over an open flame tend to over-season, perhaps because they think that unless they are doing something besides watching the grill, they aren’t really cooking. In the words of a famous philosopher, however, “keep it simple stupid.”

Cavos definitely follows that advice. Its souvlaki was seasoned just enough to add some punch, but not so much as to detract from either the delicious chicken and pork, or the lovely char that formed on the exterior of the cubes. :> x 15.

For desert, my friend and I each had Greek coffee and we split a piece of baklava. The baklava was unbelievably good. Unlike a lot of baklava, it wasn’t heavy or too sweet. It also was brilliantly made with alternating layers of filo (pastry) and sweet syrup filling, rather than a bunch of filling surrounded by some pastry. There were also almond slivers scattered throughout, giving the dish a wonderful mixture of textures and flavors. Our waitress asked us whether it was the best baklava we’d ever had and if it wasn’t it couldn’t have been too far off.

When we were finished, our waitress brought over the bill ($52.40, including a generous tip) and we had a short conversation:

Waitress: “Are you Greek?”

HFG: “No.”

Waitress: “Well, you look Greek.”

HFG: “Sorry, I am half-Portuguese.”

Waitress: “Oh. Same thing.”

It is hard to get any more Greek than that and it is hard to get more Greek than Cavos. I haven’t eaten at every place in the area that serves Greek food so I can’t say that Cavos’ food is the best. I can tell you, however, that it is damn good. I can also tell you that it is well worth a drive down the Tacky Turnpike.

Here’s the link to Cavos’ website - http://cavostavern.com/