Wednesday, August 24, 2011


Saturday my wife and I spent most of the day at the shore at a birthday party for a friend (and regular reader). Although there was a quite a bit of finger food and a delicious birthday cake we were both pretty hungry by the time we got back to Hartford so we decided to have a late (at least by Hartford standards) dinner at O’Porto on Park Street in Hartford.

O’Porto is in an old factory just over the Hartford/West Hartford line that was redeveloped by Carlos Mouta a/k/a “the Prince of Parkville.” Carlos is Portuguese, although he spent his childhood in Mozambique, which was a Portuguese colony until 1975.

After the fascist dictatorship that had ruled Portugal for about 60 years was overthrown by the Carnation Revolution in 1974 (the university students stuck carnations in the barrels of the soldiers’ guns, who effectively joined the revolution by just standing around instead of breaking up the protests) the new government granted Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bassau, Sao Tome and Principe, and the Cape Verde Islands their independence. This (and civil wars in Angola and Mozambique) led to 1,000,000 Portuguese colonists either returning to Portugal or moving elsewhere, many of them to the United States.

When Carlos arrived in the U.S. (with little more than the clothes on his back) his family settled in the Parkville section of Hartford. After graduating from Hartford Public, Carlos had an abbreviated career playing soccer, but ultimately found his way into the real estate business. Carlos has done well for himself, but he never forgot his American roots in Parkville and he has bought and refurbished quite a few buildings in Parkville and helped a number of small businesses get off the ground.

Anyway, as the name suggests, O’Porto is a Portuguese restaurant (Porto is Portugal’s second largest city), though with a very contemporary American feel. Indeed, the interior has lots of exposed brick and ductwork and the décor, furniture, and table settings are all very modern and much more fine-dining than ethnic neighborhood joint.

To start, we had the ameijoas à bulhão pato (clams sautéed in a white wine and cilantro broth) ($9). It’s hard to get more traditional than this and O’Porto’s offering stacked up perfectly well, with some good-sized claims in a very nice (but not overbearing) broth. The key is that the claims have to take on the flavor of the broth without being overwhelmed by it, and our dish definitely met that standard, with the cilantro providing just enough kick. It was a very good start to our dinner.

Mrs. HFG opted for the Lulas Grelhadas ($18). Lulas means squid, which were grilled in white wine and butter. Squid is another tough dish to get right, from both a textural and taste perspective. You have to cook it just enough so that it is not raw, but not so much that it starts to get rubbery. Also, because the flavor of squid is pretty subtle, it is easy to overwhelm it, especially with butter, which is, of course, very rich.

O’Porto got the lulas just right. They were cooked to perfection (neither Mrs. HFG nor I could think of a more perfectly cooked plate of squid we’ve had) and the flavor of the wine and butter complimented the squid very nicely.

Mrs. HFG’s dinner also had some sautéed vegetables and roasted potatoes which were OK, though not particularly memorable.

I had the Alentejana ($20). Like I said when I visited the Primavera Pub last year, alentejana is a staple of Portuguese cooking and consists of marinated pork cubes and claims, served with cubed roasted potatoes. Unlike lulas, alentejana is a pretty hearty meal and the flavor of the pork is supposed to infuse the potatoes, with the clams providing a counterbalance. I thought O’Porto’s offering worked quite well, though at $20 it is not a bargain. Still, it was delicious and I have no complaints about the taste, the portion, or the presentation.

Although O’Porto has a very nice – and reasonably priced -- selection of Portuguese wines, Mrs. HFG and I both abstained, me because I’d had a couple of cocktails at our friend’s birthday party and Mrs. HFG because she had to drive.

As it was getting late and because we were both stuffed from a long day of eating, we passed on desert, though I did see a lovely flan and a nice serving of rice pudding heading to another table as we were getting our check.

Our service was very good as the food moved quickly out of the kitchen and our table was turned in a friendly and efficient manner – without our server being overbearing or trying to rush us through dinner.Although I can’t say O’Porto is my favorite Portuguese restaurant, it is a good restaurant that serves authentic Portuguese food (there are also several takes on Portuguese cooking which I would consider “Portuguese inspired”) and has both good ambiance, as well as prompt and friendly service. If you enjoy Portuguese food, or you want to try Portuguese cuisine but want something more upscale than the Primavera Pub, then O’Porto is a very solid choice.

Here’s a link to O’Porto’s website -

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Vaughan's Public House

Notwithstanding my English ancestry, I've always been partial to all things Irish. It probably stems from the fact that I went to elementary school (Holy Family) with many, many Irish-Americans, and from the fact that my favorite teacher was a 5' tall nun named Mary Eileen Hayes. Sister Eileen's older brother Danny was a carnation wearing, Irish-American politician of the very old school. Sister Eileen used to campaign shamelessly for him on election day, enjoining us to tell our parents "to save a vote for Danny Hayes" which we did, no doubt fearful of both God's wrath, as well as Sister Eileen's, should Danny Hayes not get re-elected to the city council.

My affinity for all things Irish has carried over into my adulthood and I am partial to (among other things) a good pint of Guinness pulled from the tap and left to warm to room temperature. Perhaps needless to say, I thus generally like Irish bars and pubs. There are a good number of Irish bars of varying authenticity in the area, but I'm blogging about Vaughan's Public House on Pratt Street in Downtown because I've known Johnny Vaughan since the glory days of the Half Door on Sisson Avenue and because the folks at Vaughan's put together a very nice breakfast for my and my wife's families the day after we got married.

After hitting the gym on Saturday AM I was starving, so I decided to hit Vaughan's and live it up a little (and in the process undo all the good work I had just done :<). I started with an order of the Glenkerry Potatos ($6.59), which are thick-cut potato wedges smothered in a decent curry and sour cream.

You can't eat that sort of food and not have something with which to wash it all down, so I ordered a Smithwick's (pronounced "smiticks"), which is an hearty Irish red ale. For many years it wasn't available in the U.S. and if you wanted it you had to drive up to Canada, buy it, and hope to God that no one at the border was interested in looking through your car, which in the pre-9/11 days was a pretty safe bet.

For lunch, I opted for another Smithwick's and the meatloaf sandwich ($8.99). Vaughan's meatloaf sandwich is definitely inspired by the meatloaf sandwich that was on the Half Door's original menu, but the Vaughan's iteration is definitely an upgrade. Vaughan's meatloaf sandwich consists of a generous slice of meatloaf on some nice toasted marble rye and is loaded with cheddar cheese, horseraddish, onion, lettuce, and tomato. Not fancy, and certainly not healthy, but quite delicious (:> x 15).

For desert, I ignored the bartender's recommendation to have the cheesecake and opted instead for the Apple Brown Betty. At $6.99 it has to be one of the best values out there, as you get a very generous serving of baked apples and cherries in a brown sugar crumble crust, topped with a big scoop of vanilla ice cream with carmel and cream. Delicious (:> x 25).

Vaughan's has a couple of large screen TV's that are usually given over to sports, quite often the English Premier League (or the Premiership as it is known). This isn't too surprising given that Johnny Vaughn came to the U.S. to play soccer at Central Connecticut and then for the now defunct CT Wolves. In any event, as I ate my meatloaf sandwich and downed my Smithwick's I watched a rather listless match between Newcastle United and Arsenal.

As Irish-American bars go, Vaughan's is pretty nice, with a beautiful bar and lots of woodwork throughout. There is even a large mural of famous Irish folks, ranging for Michael Collins to Roy Keane to James Joyce to Sinead O'Connor. It might be a bit over the top, but it's still pretty cool nonetheless.

Ironically, probably the least "Irish" part of Vaughan's is its name, as Vaughan is an English name. Johnny Vaughan, you see, is from Dublin and there are many people from Dublin with English names because Dublin was for centuries the hub of English rule. Thus, many English people came to Dublin and many stayed. Their descendants became what was known for centuries as the "Old English" and they even had their own status in the law until the English in London decided that someone born in Ireland with an English name was really just an Irishman, albeit with an English name.

Still, the English origin of Johnny's last name shouldn't stop you from from going to Vaughan's and having them pull you a pint and get you something to eat. It isn't fine dining, but you will have some good cheer, some good beer, and a good time.

Here's the link to Vaughan's website -

Sunday, August 7, 2011


One night about 5 or 6 years ago my wife and I were going to go to Coyote Flaco on New Britain Avenue. It was raining, however, and we could see from our car that the place was packed and people were waiting outside the door trying to stay out of a light rain by leaning up against the building. There also didn't seem to be any parking close by, which meant we'd have to park up on Mountain or Harvard Streets and walk a bit. As much as we were craving Mexican food, we decided to go elsewhere.

As we got to the intersection of New Britain Avenue and Hillside Avenue I saw a giant chick on a sign advertising for something called Piolin. I had driven by it a bunch of times but had never stopped.

Frankly, however, the sign had always intrigued me, as did the fact that the sign said the place served Peruvian food. Although the parking situation was only a little better than at Coyote Flaco, it didn't look quite as crowded, so I convinced Mrs. HFG to give it a try.

That was the first of many trips we made to Piolin, both to eat in and to take out. It was a wonderful little spot, in a gutted house with a simple menu offering broiled chicken, ceviche, and a few other Peruvian specialties. As much as we enjoyed it, however, for some reason it slowly slipped out of our restaurant rotation.

Last night, we decided to get re-acquainted, so we went for a fairly early dinner. When we walked in we were happy to see that, although the place was basically the same, there had clearly been some upgrades. First, the interior had been painted a bright orange/yellow adorned with pictures and what appeared to be evocative of the type of art people native to Peru were producing long before Pizarro and company arrived in 1524. Second, the menu was greatly expanded, with numerous entrees, Peruvian drinks, and even an interesting South American wine list.

My wife decided to start with the ceviche mixto, which consisted of mixed seafood marinated in lemon juice and served with boiled potatoes, sweet potatoes, and red onions. Like any seafood dish, especially a raw seafood dish, ceviche only works if the fish is really fresh, which it was. The tartness of the lemon juice mixed well with the seafood and it was very refreshing. In fact, Mrs. HFG thought it was one of the best plates of ceviche she'd ever had.

For dinner Mrs. HFG had chicharron, which was a plate of fried seafood; squid, fish, and what appeared to be fried, stuffed mussels. It came with salad and fried yucca. Fried seafood is always good (:> x 50) but this plate was particularly good, especially because of the mussels. Mrs. HFG did think, however, that some lemon would have been good and I don't disagree.

I started with an order of anticuchos, which is to say beef heart. I'd had beef heart once before and enjoyed it, though I thought it was a bit salty (Mrs. HFG did not enjoy it, at all). This time, saltiness was not a problem.

Beef heart tastes, perhaps not surprisingly, like any other cut of beef, but the flavor is more intense and the meat is springier, meaning it's pretty chewy. I know it might seem a bit off-putting, but eating beef heart really isn't much different than eating any other part of the animal except for the springy texture.

For dinner, I had the 1/2 broiled chicken, which came with a massive serving of french fries. The french fries weren't that great (they were a bit greasy), but the chicken was very, very good. The skin was cooked to perfection and it, along withe the juicy meat, flaked off the bone. :> x 50. My only criticism was that the chicken tasted a bit salty. The chef probably over-seasoned the chicken just a bit and it did detract a little from the taste. Still, it was very good and those 1/2 chickens (and the whole ones) are reason enough to give Piolin a try.

A word about the portions; they were ENORMOUS. For example, my beef heart "appetizer" consisted of three skewers, each with three large hunks of meat. One would have been sufficient. Two would have been more than enough. Three was too much, even for a ravenous HFG. Then add in a "side" of potatoes and corn and you have gone totally over the edge.

Because of the vast amount of food that appeared on our plates, Mrs. HFG and I barely got through half our food. Happily, our server had everything put in doggy bags in short order and we were good to go.

While our server was friendly and hard-working, the service had problems. My wife's dinner and appetizer arrived simultaneously, with my dinner and appetizer arriving a couple of minutes thereafter. Still, it's hard to complain too much when the food is good (and plentiful).

There was, however, an unexpected upside to the delay in our appetizers, which was we got to enjoy the salsa peruana aji, which is a green sauce into which we were able to dip our complimentary bread. While the bread wasn't great, it didn't need to be, since it was only a platform for the sauce. The sauce is made from the aji chili, lime juice, garlic, black pepper, salt and olive oil. The heat of the chili and the tartness of the lime work very well together.

Total tab, including tip, was just under $65. Now, that might sound like a lot for a neighborhood restaurant, but understand we ended up with about 3.5 meals worth of food; the dinner my wife and I each had at Piolin, my wife's midnight snack last evening, and my lunch today. All in all, a very good bargain, especially considering the quality.

Piolin is a down home ethnic and neighborhood restaurant. It caters, however, not just Peruvians, but to the much larger Hispanic community in Hartford. I have, however, seen Trinity students and perhaps even professors as well, at least during the school year.

Finally, Piolin has expanded, at least sort of, with the proprietors' son having opened his own "Piolyn, Jr." in East Hartford at the intersection of Main Street and Connecticut Boulevard. I haven't been there but if it is anything like its namesake, I would think it has to be pretty good.

I like Piolin. It isn't perfect, but the food is good, it is plentiful, it is interesting, and it is reasonably priced. It's a tough combination to beat.

Here's a link to Piolin's website. It's a very simple site and isn't yet done, but you'll get at least some idea of the place - -

If you're interested, also check out Piolyn Jr -

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Cantina Cafe Ristorante

Last night I took a drive down to Middletown with two friends (both Italian-Americans), one of whom had been urging me for some time to try the Cantina, which is in the tiny basement underneath the Italian-American Club on Court Street. After urging me to eat a light lunch, my friend cautioned me, "this place is great, but it's old school." While the caution was not needed (I love the old school) the recommendation was certainly appreciated and, as it turned out, quite accurate.

From the outside the Cantina doesn't look like much (actually, it doesn't look like anything, because there's just a small sign and a doorway at the side of the club), and when you walk down the stairs your first impression is confirmed as you enter into a small and somewhat cramped basement with cinder block walls. That said, the place is actually pretty d*mn charming, in an old-fashioned sort of way.

The walls are painted a nice clean white and adorned with pictures and grape leaves hand painted on the wall in different colors. Throw in artificial grape leaves running along the beams of the ceiling, old-fashioned red leather booths, and tables covered in white tablecloths with old-fashioned cutlery and white linen napkins and you feel like you are back in 1970 (adding to the ambiance the friend who brought us quipped, "so, I was at this wedding in Waterbury on Saturday and some guy was trying to explain to me why Good Fellas is a better movie than the Godfather. I asked him, 'are you crazy!?!'").

We started with the plate of antipasti pictured, which had some nice fresh mozzarella, delicious (but mild and not too salty) prosciutto, olives, and sweet peppers (which were OK, but not up to either the mozzarella or the prosciutto. There were also those monstrous hot peppers you see. My friends passed on those, but being the HFG, I had to at least try them. I managed to eat about half of one before the extreme heat got to me. Still, it was delicious.

For dinner, my friend who brought us had the veal milanese ($21.95). First, and in the interest of full disclosure, the portion was massive and probably close to twice as large as what you'd get at most restaurants. My friend can eat, and he only managed to get about 3/4 of the way through his dinner.

Second, it was delicious (and probably an heart attack waiting to happen). The veal cutlet was breaded, and prepared with a generous amount of mozzarella, prosciutto, and peppers in a sauce made from stock, butter, and garlic. This a very traditional dish (my friend being even more old school than I even substituted out the peppers in favor of tomatoes, which is the traditional way to prepare the dish). Needless to say, when I tasted it, the flavors were basic, but very rich and well-blended. Given the portion and the richness of the food, it was more than a meal but quite delicious.

My other friend had the veal eggplant sorrentino ($21.50). This dish is made by breading eggplant and sauteing the veal and than putting a slice of prosciutto, the eggplant, some marinara sauce, and some mozzarella on the veal cutlet and cooking it in the oven until the mozzarella has melted.

Again, the cutlet was enormous (my other friend can also eat but he only got about 1/2 through his dinner and had to bring the rest home) and it was delicious. The eggplant was neither over breaded nor overcooked and there was just enough marinara sauce and cheese to compliment, but not overwhelm the dish. In fact, I thought the veal sorrentino was the best of the three entrees we ordered, and that is saying something because the veal milanese was really good. Still, however, my other friend's dinner was also quite rich.

I had the gnocchi ($21.50). While I don't think it was quite up to the level of either of the veal dishes, it was still very good. The portion was more than generous (though not quite as enormous as either of the veal plates) and the gnocchi themselves seemed pretty fresh and shaped irregularly (which is pretty good evidence they were made by hand). The potato filling was good and certainly didn't overwhelm the taste of the pasta itself. Cooked in a very rich sauce made with stock, garlic, and butter, they were delicious.

If I have one criticism of the food, it is that it is so rich. If you are not used to eating rich foods with lots of butter, you might have a hard time with your dinner, though exercising some portion control (like promising yourself you are only going to have 1/2 of your enormous veal cutlet and bring the other half home) will help a lot.

We also shared a bottle of chianti ruffino ($28), which was adequate for our purposes, though not exactly memorable.

We also had some bread which, while a bit slow to arrive, was hot and right out of the oven.

I don't know whether the Cantina serves dessert (I didn't see any on the dinner menu), but none of us was in any position to order any. We were all stuffed and very satisfied.

As a nice treat at the end, the father of my friend who brought us suddenly appeared from the kitchen and said "come on, I'll introduce you to Tomasso." Tomasso is the proprietor and chef and must be an incredibly hard worker because he seemed to be alone and doing all the cooking himself. While his kitchen was very old-fashioned (including a cast-iron stove) it was clean and well-organized.

For his part, Tomasso was friendly and extremely appreciative of our patronage. He even offered us some sambuca, but it was getting late and we had to drive back to Hartford.

If I have any serious criticism of the Cantina it's that the service is OK, but certainly not great. Our waitress was friendly, but not overly attentive and I don't think she moved her tables very efficiently. Still, with food this good, that's a minor issue and it didn't detract from the overall experience.The Cantina certainly isn't fine dining. It's a super-old fashioned place that serves traditional Italian-American food in massive quantities at a reasonable price. It isn't fancy, and it's not perfect, but the food is delicious and I plan on taking Mrs. HFG there sometime soon.