Monday, November 16, 2009

Tapas, Bloomfield, CT, November 2009

Food: C-
Service: C-

Amy and Joanne write:

My husband Chris loves Middle Eastern food and introduced me to Tapas, via the West Hartford location, years ago. We don’t go often, but whenever we have gone, it has been a very good experience. He’ll get a gyro, I’ll get something off the blackboard specials, and we’ll enjoy the warm, friendly atmosphere. When I found out that Joanne has never been to Tapas, I was surprised. Shortly thereafter, we decided to have an early dinner at the Bloomfield location.

When we arrived, there were no customers in the dining room, so we decided to sit at the bar. A bartender helped us choose from a selection of special drinks and martinis and ended her shift shortly after she served us said drinks. The next bartender set up a chafing dish of “Madd Greek” wings, and served them up, on the house, to the customers at the bar. The sauce was sweet and spicy at the same time and was a nice change from the ubiquitous buffalo sauce. We also received a complimentary bowl of their home made kettle chips. These free treats were a nice surprise and a good start to our visit. We thought we would finish the appetizer portion of our meal with stuffed clams. There were two on the plate, and they were moist, flavorful and full of diced clams that were tender, unlike the rubber-band clams and dry stuffing that all too easy to get in New England restaurant.

Amy wanted to wait to see the dinner specials before ordering, but I knew before we even got there what I wanted to order. I fell in love with Middle Eastern food while living in Boston and don’t have it often—not nearly often enough—these days. Falafel is not common, but it is one of my all time favorite foods so I chose to have the falafel sandwich. The “hand helds” all had a platter option (Greek salad and rice pilaf), but I wasn’t interested in rice pilaf, so I asked for a salad without the rice. It was a matter of time until I feasted on one of my favorite foods.

The salad came and was delicious, as Amy promised--mixed greens, crumbled feta, onion, olives, tomatoes and pepperoncinis with just that right amount of an herby vinaigrette. It was also huge, and could have been a meal on its own, but I stopped myself after a few bites to save room for falafel.

The falafel sandwich came in a huge pita, which I discovered was stuffed mostly with iceburg lettuce and three falafel balls dressed sparingly with tahini. I removed a falafel to savor the moment…and was disappointed. What should have been crisp on the outside and cakey and moist on the inside was burnt on the outside and pasty on the inside. And it had a strangely tangy taste that masked the garlic and chick pea flavor that should have come through. I should have eaten more salad.

Nothing really excited me on the special menu, which was a let-down after waiting for it to appear. I ended up going with the chicken kebob dinner, two grilled skewers of marinated chicken served over rice with toasted pita points and tzatziki (a cucumber-based creamy sauce). Knowing how much I love their salad dressing (in fact, Tapas is famous for it around here), I also ordered a dinner salad. But, between that and the apps, I was close to full. And it was a good thing, too. The kebob platter was average. The chicken was pretty dry, as was the rice. The tzatziki had only a hint of cucumber taste, and the rest of the plate was filled with six (six!) pita points. Who needs that much bread? This was not the Tapas I was used to.

When we alerted the bartender that we had a coupon when we asked for our check, he seemed inconvenienced. And when I questioned being charged 4.00 for a platter—since I didn’t have rice—plus another 1.00 for the salad, he treated me like I was stupid. I did have the platter, he assured me, by having a large salad (which I didn't ask for). He said I got for 5.00 what is on the menu for six. Trouble is the menu didn’t say “No rice? Sub fries or supersize your salad.” It simply said “No rice? Sub fries or a Greek salad for 1.00.”

Needles to say, dinner—like my falafel—ended on a sour note. What started off as fun and tasty ended less than satisfying. It was not the Tapas Amy was used to, and not one either of us would return to.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Max Burger, West Hartford, CT, October 2009

Food: A-
Service: B+

Joanne and Amy write:

Amy and I have been meaning to go to Max Burger since it opened. Fans of all the Max restaurants, and unabashed burger lovers, it really was a must try for us. We missed our opportunity to go for lunch this summer, but committed to a date and decided to go right after school, as late lunch/early dinner—daring to dine in that time Amy and I sometimes feel is The Dead Zone, when you can’t signal a server to save your life.

I had heard rave reviews from fellow burger buffs and had been on line a dozen times to view the menu (three the day we were going) but still had trouble deciding. In the end I chose to begin with a Max salad and build my own burger, modifying the 5-ounce Max Classic.

The Max salad was a simple, fresh and crisp start to my meal. Mixed greens, halved grape tomatoes, Bermuda onion, cucumbers and radishes were delivered cold, on a chilled plate, with blue cheese dressing on the side. The dressing was creamy without being overly thick, and tasted of blue cheese, but not overly pungent. There were chopped scallions in the dressing that gave a nice flavor as well.

I kept wavering between burger selections, but finally decided on the Alfred, an 8-ounce burger with Comte cheese, caramelized onions, and rosemary aioli served on an artisan roll. Since it was a larger burger, I chose not to get a starter. The burger was thick and juicy, with well-seasoned, tasty ground meat cooked to medium as requested. The creamy cheese melted into the burger and along with the onions gave it a nice sweetness that the herby aioli counterbalanced. Unfortunately, the roll was very light and airy, and while I think it would be great alongside a bowl of soup, it wasn’t sturdy enough to handle the burger and its juices; it fell apart on the first bite. I enjoyed the crisp, hand-cut fries with ketchup and with the garlic aioli that was served with them.

The menu lists allowable substitutions for $1.50. In addition, it lists toppings and cheeses available for $1.00. My classic burger came—as requested—with the addition of bacon, mayonnaise on the side, and arugula instead of lettuce. I declined on the Max sauce, which was described as a spicy, chipotle mayonnaise, but our server was kind enough to offer it on the side and, though both Amy and I thought it lacked the kick it should have, we found it just as tasty as the aioli for dipping the fries. My burger was cooked a perfect medium and the flavor did not disappoint. It was a combination of my favorite sandwich—bacon, arugula and tomato—and a burger and just what my taste buds expected it to be. I would have preferred hot bacon over room temperature and a better bun. Though more substantial than Amy’s artisan roll, the standard supermarket bun was a disappointment. A ciabatta roll would have elevated the burger from delicious to exceptional.

The Cabrini Malbec, an Argentinean red, was berry-forward and complimented the burger nicely. The $6 per glass price made it a good value as well. For dessert, we had to try the whoopie pies, which came two to an order and were perfectly sized for our almost-full stomachs. The cake wasn’t overly dry, just dry enough to hold up the frosting, which was creamy and sugary. Other nostalgic offerings on the dessert menu include milkshakes, brownies and hot fudge sundaes.

Despite the overkill on the cow motif (no pun intended) throughout the restaurant and what we would consider weak buns for such delicious burgers, we would both return. Neither of us tackled the Fatty Melt (a burger sandwiched between two grilled cheeses) and it calls from the menu like a challenge. Meanwhile, the special of the day was a scallop dish that, had we not been there specifically to sample their burgers, we would have been interested in trying. Our service was good but it took some time, and appearance of other patrons to be seated, before our server was more visible and available.

That being said, we might not travel long distances or make pilgrimages for their burgers, but Max Burger does pass the Max Restaurant Group test and makes its way onto our list of restaurants we’d recommend.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Sakura Garden, South Windsor, CT, October 2009

Food: B
Service: A-

Amy and Joanne write:

My husband loves sushi, so I often find myself at Japanese restaurants noshing on a bunch of appetizers – a Japanese version of dim sum. One of the places we’ve visited is Sakura Garden, where Chris enjoyed a humongous sushi/sashimi platter and I, uncharacteristically not hungry, only had the chicken tempura app with some white rice. That tempura, however, was delicious. I had that delicious tempura in mind when Joanne suggested Sakura Garden for our latest outing.

We decided to make it an early dinner and take advantage of Sakura’s great Happy Hour menu, on which soups, salads, hot appetizers, maki and hand rolls, well drinks, beer and wine all range from $2 to $4. It appeared this could be our cheapest outing yet.

We started with the tempura, which was as I remembered it. It had good structure – it was well-battered, but fried lightly enough to make it good and crispy out the outside with tender, juicy chicken inside.

We were off to a tasty—and free—start, as I had a coupon for a free tempura. Now it was time to work our way through the rest of the appetizers. I had looked at the menu while waiting for Amy, and decided that everything in the appetizer column, except for the edamame and the miso eggplant, appealed to me that afternoon. She agreed, so once the tempura came out, we worked our way down the list.

We loved the gyoza (pan fried dumplings) as much as the tempura. They were the perfect contrast of textures--tender inside with a nice crispness to the dumpling. The sesame ginger dipping sauce went very well with these. The haru maki (deep fried spring rolls) were also good, although we would have preferred them crispier and the peanut sauce that accompanied them, while tasty, was a bit thin. The yakitori, (chicken skewers) were tasty and tender, served with teriyaki for dipping.

All of these appetizers we would order again; the one big disappointment was the shrimp shumai. These were steamed to the point of sogginess and the consistency was quite mushy. As for the flavor, rather than fresh shrimp, all we could taste was fish. Fishy fish. A few of these remained on the plate.

Because this was Happy Hour, we were seated at the bar, of course, and always within eyeshot of our server, who was attentive and prompt. Toward the end of our appetizer sampling, we were offered a complimentary sake tasting—a nice, and unexpected, touch that brought our meal to a satisfactory close. We were full, we felt taken care of, and it didn’t break the bank. This was one of our least expensive excursions to date and a place to which we would both return—even on a tight budget.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Wood N Tap, Vernon, CT, September 2009

Food: C-
Service: D+

Joanne and Amy write:

A new Wood N Tap opened in Vernon last year, and although we have both been to other locations, Amy and I put it on our list of places to try. The other night it was a convenient place for us to meet, so we did.

We were both ravenous, having eaten our school lunch at 10, so we ordered an appetizer to share while we made up our minds. We agreed on the fried mozzarella. Three large triangles of breaded fried cheese were delivered with a splash of marinara, garnished with unnecessary shredded mozzarella that took away from both the presentation and the taste. After we scraped off the shredded cheese, this was a tasty accompaniment to our red wine.

I tried their steakhouse salad and was disappointed. It sounded so good on the menu—“a blend of chopped greens with candied walnuts, crumbled bleu cheese, diced tomatoes, chopped egg, roasted red peppers, carrots and bacon tossed in a bleu cheese vinaigrette, topped with bourbon marinated sliced steak and frizzled onions.” It was delivered by a server other than the one who took our order, and unfortunately, when it was presented, the first thing I noticed was that the steak, which I ordered medium, was raw. And because it’s marinated, it looked bruised and raw. It distracted me from wanting to eat the rest, and it took several minutes until our “real” server passed and we could flag her down to send it back.

When it came back, it was no less disappointing. The frizzled onions were soggy at that point, and the salad was overdressed and limp. I’m not sure there were any roasted peppers, or if there were, they were clearly unremarkable. Overall the salad looked like soggy leftover bits from the crisper, rather than a crisp, fresh salad cut into bite size pieces. Our server never did a second check-back, and when she finally came to pick up our dirty dishes, she didn’t comment on the mostly uneaten salad other than to ask if I wanted it wrapped, which I certainly did not.

I was starving and decided to go with the half-rack of barbecue ribs that came with French fries and cole slaw. The ribs were falling off the bone, tender and well-seasoned, and the portion was a good size. I really liked the sweetness of “Uncle Fred’s secret sauce” because it paired well with the smokiness of the meat. The cole slaw was crunchy and creamy at the same time, and although I’m not a big slaw fan, I could see the appeal. Too bad that the fries were tasteless and limp, and therefore most ended up left on the plate.

After a very long wait with dirty plates, our server asked if we wanted dessert. She couldn’t find a dessert menu, so rattled off the four choices, highlighting the fact that all four are made in-house. We decided on the apple cobbler, it being early fall and all. What we got, however, was an unappetizing, unrecognizable mess. There was a large square of so-called cobbler completely covered in chopped nuts, way too much caramel and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. One bite revealed that that wasn’t just all we could see, it was all we could taste. The caramel and nuts overpowered any bits of apple or the topping usually found on a cobbler, and after only a couple of bites, we gave up. Then we sat for over fifteen minutes, again with dirty plates, waiting for our check.

The poor service shaded our meal. That is, if we had a great server who was apologetic about the salad, even just attentive, we might be willing to give Vernon’s Wood N Tap another try with a mental note to skip the sticky dessert. But even though Amy’s ribs were a hit, my salad was a miss on several points. And the service missing to make up for it.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Vito's By the Park, Hartford, CT July 2009

Food: C+
Service: B

Joanne and Amy write:

Amy and I penciled in a couple of RRC dates at the end of the school year. We didn't want to go the summer without seeing each other or without a review, and we thought we might try another Italian restaurant, so we settled on Vito's by the Park. Here I admit I had an ulterior motive--1000 points for a Monday night reservation on OpenTable.

I have been to Vito's multiple times, but mainly for cocktails and happy hour. Years ago I remember a great experience with lobster ravioli, as well as other appetizers, but couldn't remember the last time I sat down for dinner there. Clearly, it was time.

I too had been to Vito’s a few times, a couple times for dinner, a couple times for happy hour, but it has been a while. I was happy to walk in and see Joanne already at the bar, which was offering complementary pizza to its guests. We had a drink at the bar, but saved our appetites for the meal.

It wasn’t a particularly busy night, and we were able to choose a seat by the open French doors with a cool breeze and view of nearby Bushnell Park. We chose to share a bottle of the decent but not spectacular, specially-made-for-Vito’s Cabernet sauvignon, and perused the menu. I was in a seafood mood, and decided on the vongole oreganata to start, followed by the lobster ravioli entrée.

There were four clams to the vongole oreganto appetizer plate, and they were tender, cooked well in their own juices, and topped with a spicy breadcrumb mix and finely chopped bacon. I’m a big clams casino lover, and these being so similar, I enjoyed them very much with a few squirts of lemon. I declined Joanne’s invitation to try her lobster ravioli, and instead helped myself to the bread basket as we waited for entrees.

I went with what I remembered being good and ordered the lobster ravioli appetizer. It was as I remember, but this time (years of dining out and palate development later) I thought the ample vodka crème sauce competed with the lobster ravioli—and won. I kept thinking the rich sauce with a sundried tomato depth could have been the star, served with penne as a stand alone dish, or perhaps with a few shrimp or some chicken. It was richer than it needed to be with lobster ravioli, and obscured the flavor of the ravioli filling. That being said, I enjoyed them still, and ate them all since Amy was getting an entrée portion and refused my offer to share. Lucky me, I also tasted a one of her clams and agree that they were tender and delicious.

For my entrée I debated between the Bolognese and shrimp scampi and ultimately chose to stay with a seafood theme (and against what Amy said harkens a cold fall night). The shallow bowl had a perfect portion of pasta and shrimp, with an interesting addition of capers. As I prepared to eat it, it seemed a bit soupy, and every bite of fettuccine that sloshed through the broth as I twirled it around my fork left me looking for the flavor of garlic. Maybe it was in the shrimp? No. Not there either. Not even in the thin broth left on the bottom of the bowl in which I did find a couple of garlic slices. Alas my shrimp scampi was bland, and disappointing, and left me wishing I had tried the Bolognese.

I had an idea of what was coming with the lobster ravioli since Joanne had it for her appetizer, but the menu described the entrée as being accompanied by asparagus spears and topped with lobster meat. Several asparagus spears were present, but they were slightly overcooked, with no “snap.” More disappointing was the minute amount of lobster found inside the ravioli, and on top, I only found a bit of knuckle meat so drenched in the sauce that I mistook it for a chunk of tomato. I loved the vodka cream sauce that the ravioli came in, but—as with Joanne’s appetizer portion—there was so much of it that it overpowered any chance of tasting any lobster that might have been there.

It was difficult to choose a dessert, but the New York-style cheesecake with fresh berry compote was one we could both agree on. It was everything it promised to be – smooth, creamy, and not too dense cheesecake on a thin graham cracker crust. The berry topping was the perfect blend of sweet and tart, and the entire thing paired well with our ice-cold limoncellos.

Overall, the service was good on this not-very-busy night, but we were both disappointed with our pasta dishes, something that should be basic fare in an Italian restaurant. In the future, we would probably consider Vito’s for happy hour, but no more.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

J. Gilbert's Wood Fired Steaks, Glastonbury, CT June 2009

Food: A+
Service: A-

Amy and Joanne write:

Joanne and I had planned some time ago to make J. Gilbert’s Wood Fired Steaks an RRC destination. We finally had the opportunity last night, as an end-of-the-school-year splurge. My husband and I have been many times, and we have never had a bad experience. The food is consistently great, I dare say outstanding, and the service is spot on. In fact, both have won several local “best of” awards.

I arrived first to this bustling and busy steak house and had a chance to peruse the menu while waiting for Amy. (Not that I hadn’t looked online!) In that time our server also brought me a sample of Malbec I was interested in trying. Satisfied, I ordered a glass, which was delivered just as Amy joined me.

I also ordered a glass of wine, choosing the J. Lohr cabernet. Since we were going “all out,” we decided to begin with a shared appetizer before moving on to our own meals. We chose the Shrimp Durango. Six large shrimp arrived, arranged like a sunburst around a heap of sauteed Roma tomatoes, spinach and basil. A sprinkling of shredded parmesan gave it bite. Below the shrimp was a puddle of orange-red ancho chili butter that added a subtle but pleasant heat to the freshness of the dish. I had no problem dipping my slice of sourdough into that sauce! It was a great start.

Next I moved on a Caesar salad, for which I requested no anchovies. A generous portion of romaine was presented with a parmesan crisp. The dressing’s first flavor to hit my taste buds was lemon, followed by Dijon mustard. I enjoyed this mild Caesar dressing that left me ready for dinner.

I tasted Joanne’s Caesar as well as the parmesan crisp. I liked both, but I’m not a big salad person, so I ordered the crab bisque. The bisque was presented in a large shallow bowl topped with lump crabmeat and a garnish of chives. A bit of fresh cracked pepper was all that was needed. Creamy and velvety, the bisque was both warming and satisfying. I could have eaten several bowls, but not with an entrée on the way.

When dinner arrived I was glad I limited myself to 2 shrimp and a salad, as I had every intention of eating every morsel of the 4-ounce petit filet and 4-oz scallop combination dinner I ordered, served with asparagus and chipotle cheddar mashed potatoes. While I enjoyed the asparagus and tasty potatoes, I focused on the protein. The scallops were outstanding. Cooked perfectly, soft and sweet with a balsamic glaze. For an extra 1.95 I asked that my petit filet be prepared au poivre. It was perfect. The sauce worked on this oh-so-tender filet that was cooked to a perfect medium.

Between the shrimp and the bisque, I had my fill of seafood and was glad I ordered just a steak, in particular, the six-ounce filet au poivre with the chipotle cheddar mashed and haricot verts. The filet was perfectly cooked and nicely coated with cracked and whole peppercorns. The cream and brandy sauce made the fork-tender mesquite-grilled filet taste extra special. The green beans were crisp while the potatoes were smooth and flavorful. I ate half of everything and packed the rest, which reheated well to make a nice lunch for the next day.

As full as we both were, we had to have dessert, in particular, their almond tuiles cannoli. Rich chocolate mousse filled a crisp almond cookie shell which rested over raspberry sauce and crème anglaise. A mix of sweet berries prettied up the plate as well as our palates.

Overall it was exceptional. Our server paced our dinner well, which was important for a multi-course meal. She was friendly, knowledgeable, and checked in appropriately to refill water and wine. With a variety of steakhouses in the area from which to choose, J. Gilbert’s is a great value. Think Capital Grille but less pricy and austere or Max Downtown but more homey and with more customers. The food and service will make future visits to J. Gilbert’s an inevitability.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Pancho Loco's, Vernon, CT May 2009

Food: B+
Service: A-

Joanne and Amy write:

We’re back! Needless to say we haven’t had much time to dine out together these last couple of months, but there’s nothing like nice weather and the end of the school year to bring us out again. Coupon in hand we headed to Pancho Loco’s, a Mexican restaurant on Rt. 83 in Vernon, whose signage boasts “voted best Mexican in Tolland County.”

Having visited San Diego over my April vacation and sampled some good Mexican food on my trip, I had both a hankering for Mexican food and a good Margarita. I ordered the Pancho’s ultimate, on the rocks with a salted rim, and was pleased. I sipped as Amy and I perused the menu at our table on the deck, trying to navigate through enchiladas vs. burritos vs. chimichangas.

I decided on Sangria, and—knowing I’d have a couple of glasses and Joanne would share—decided on the pitcher. The homemade sangria was a refreshing blend of red wine and fruit juice, neither of which was overpowering. It was delicious and easy to drink, particularly with the complimentary chips and salsa. For my meal I ordered the chimichanga, a lightly fried burrito stuffed with moist shredded beef, grilled peppers and onions, and topped with a thick spicy queso sauce. The side dishes, beans and rice, were well-prepared; that is, the beans were not a mushy mess and the rice wasn’t bland or dry.

I ordered a soft taco dinner. I would have liked to see fish tacos as an offering, but I suppose that’s a California thing. From my choices of beef, pulled pork, and chicken I chose pulled pork. The three soft tacos were simply stuffed with shredded lettuce, diced tomato and pulled pork. Condiments were served on the side, which I prefer, and which enabled me to really taste my pork, which was juicy and delicious. My side dishes, like Amy’s, were not a disappointing plate-filler, but rather a tasty accompaniment to my tacos.

Pancho Loco’s has a variety of happy hour specials and plenty of premium tequilas from which to choose. Our server/bartender, familiar to us for a reason we have yet to figure out, was pleasant and attentive. She was friendly and cheerful and checked back on us often even though we were the only customers around (it being that lonely time between lunch and dinner rushes), and despite our location out on the deck. That back deck provides a great spot to sit and sip on a warm sunny afternoon, and we were all too happy to take advantage of that.

And since we were so full we forgot to order the fried ice cream, we’ll have yet another reason to go back!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Bin 228, Hartford, CT March 2009

Food: A
Service: C

Joanne and Amy write:

I admit up front that I have known one of the Bin 228 owners, Alicia Roncari, since we were kids. I ate spaghetti and listened to Aerosmith in her basement at her birthday party in third grade. Over the years we pined over long-haired rock stars—she over Steve Tyler, and I over Peter Frampton—and thus we will be forever connected. But it was my job, albeit self-appointed, to put all that aside and enter Bin 228 with an open mind and a clean palate, although it was difficult to leave my bias for this type of restaurant at the door. Here I also admit that I love the concept behind Bin 228—Italian enoteca meets American bar—and have eaten here before, as has Amy.

Enoteca, wine bar, bistro, café…whatever you want to call it, I’m a fan of this Euro-style establishment where small bites and large wine lists are the norm. It’s my understanding that the owners of Bin 228 decided on the concept while traveling in Italy. Naturally! The menu is simple—categories include salads, plates (think cured meats and cheeses), bruschetta, tramezzini, panini, and risotto (of the day and only during dinner hours). A few Italian-style sweets (gelato, biscotti, even a Nutella panino) make it complete. When I perused the offerings, I was whisked back to the many slow summer afternoons I spent in Italy snacking and sipping wine at one outdoor café or another. It’s nice to have that opportunity so close to home.

The wine list shows both evidence of knowledge of Italy’s wines and thought put into matching them with the menu. There are offerings from each region that vary in price range, but none would disappoint. Since a Monday special is half-off bottles of wine, we went with the staff pick, Argiano’s Non Confunditur, a full-bodied Super-Tuscan blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Sangiovese that was sweet, spicy, earthy and well-rounded. I made a note to find a bottle for my cellar.

I decided to start with some bread because I was craving carbs. They have bagna cauda on the menu – four slices of garlic bread between each of which was a slice of melted fresh mozzarella. A skewer of rosemary ran through the mini-loaf: a unique twist, I thought. The rosemary infused the bread with a pleasant piney flavor that balanced well with the tangy garlic and creamy cheese. It was great and I ate all of it except the one slice I offered to Joanne. For my second plate, I chose the carpaccio. My first experience with carpaccio was in fact, in Italy, and I ordered it in the hopes of recreating that experience. I knew Joanne would give it a try; it had arugula on it after all. The portion was generous and covered the plate. The raw meat was sliced so thinly that it melted in my mouth. It was drizzled with high-end olive oil and covered with peppery arugula and parmesan cheese. A successful dish.

As Amy mentioned, throw arugula on the menu, somewhere, anywhere, and I am bound to order it. At Bin 228 there are multiple menu choices that include arugula, so I didn’t limit myself to one. I started with a simple arugula salad—a beautiful mound of arugula dressed in a lemon truffle oil with shingles of Asiago cheese on top. A sprinkle of salt was all the salad needed. Fortunately, there was salt shaker on the table, as our server was not very attentive. Four tomato wedges—that I imagine in the summer are more flavorful— garnished the plate.

I chose to follow my salad with a tramezzino, an Italian sandwich, made on white bread with the crusts removed, and cut on the diagonal. My tramezzino was essentially an Italian BLT—made with pancetta, tomato, arugula, and lemon mayonnaise. The bread was soft, the generous portion of pancetta was crispy and overall it was delicious, served with a small helping of salad dressed in a slightly sweet vinaigrette. To accompany my sandwich I also ordered an olive bowl. Too often olives all taste the same, like brine, but these are marinated in house; they were fruity and lemony and herbaceous—some of the best olives I’ve ever eaten.

For our afternoon dolce, we shared a bowl of chocolate gelato. Three big scoops of creamy chocolate gelato and two spoons arrived; an empty bowl went back to the kitchen. The cocoa flavor was not ruined by too much sugar; it was chocolate-y, not cloying, and we could tell it was small batch, as indicated by the menu. It was a nice dessert to share while sipping the last of our wine. And kudos to Bin 228 for using a local ice cream/gelato producer, J. Foster's in Simsbury.

That was the food. On to the service. A male server seated us and handed us menus but we never saw him again. Instead, several minutes later, a female server gave us a bland greeting with no facial expression. We had to ask for water, and when we asked questions about the menu, as we always do, it seemed an inconvenience. A chalkboard advertised happy hour appetizer specials. When we asked what they were, we didn’t get a definitive answer. She mentioned checking with the chef, but never got back to us. While she did seem knowledgeable about the items on the regular menu, she had no enthusiasm about the food she’d be serving. We didn’t even learn her name until a businessman was seated at the bar and we heard him address her. With him, she was pleasant and friendly, with us, not so much.

Just as it was important to put rock star fantasies aside before walking in, it seems most fair, while writing the review, to exclude the part of our experience toward the end of our meal, during which Alicia stood tableside and chatted with us, which really was a nice touch for me, a surprise reunion.

That being said, the food was exceptional--a welcome departure from troughs of pasta that all tastes like garlic and calls itself Italian. Likewise, the wine list was remarkable, a nice change from wine lists offering little more than Robert Mondavi and Rodney Strong. But our service was disappointingly…average. While it may be our bane to dine at off hours, when the school day is done and it’s been five hours since we’ve eaten lunch at 10:30, we consider it an appropriate challenge for restaurants to treat us as well at 3 or 4 in the afternoon as they would at 7 or 8 in the evening. In fact, having both been servers in the past, a lone two-top in the house seems the perfect opportunity to give exceptional service. Alas, not on this occasion.

Fortunately, the concept, the tasty food, the good wine, and the fond memories they all evoke of time spent in Italy will keep us coming back to Bin 228.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Hazard Grille, Enfield, CT March 2009

Food: A-
Service: A-

Joanne and Amy write:

In the middle of an overdeveloped area of strip malls and chain restaurants in Enfield, next door to the Olive Garden, in a building that used to house a Red Lobster, on Hazard Ave, is an independently owned restaurant called the Hazard Grille. Being independently owned is enough of a draw to get me to try it; put it close to home, and I’m bound to become a regular, especially if the service is good. And it is. That being said, I do stop in fairly regularly for a burger, or a salad, or happy hour. Yet in all the times I’ve been, I’ve never ordered a dinner entrée, so that was the plan. Meet Amy for happy hour, start with that menu, and move on to dinner.

We arrived at 4, just as their Happy Hour—which includes drink specials and specially priced appetizers—began. Neither Amy nor I cared enough for the 4 dollar wine offering, so we ordered a very reasonably priced bottle of California Cabernet Sauvignon instead. To start our food fest, we ordered mussels and Edna’s bread.

The pound or so of P.E.I. mussels came steaming hot in a garlicky white wine and lemon sauce, garnished with leeks. The mussels were plump and tasty, and begged to be dipped into the sauce, which I did with every one. The Edna’s bread, which my mother remembers from The Log Cabin in Holyoke, MA (apparently, the owners met working there as teenagers), is a must-order in my opinion. The crusty loaf has at its center a layer of creamy bleu cheese and is topped with a sprinkling of parmesan that crisps when it bakes. It’s buttery, cheesy, soft and crunchy, and way better than any garlic bread I’ve ever had.

Though not a regular, per se, I have been to the Hazard Grille on a couple of occasions, and like Joanne, have yet to try an entrée. Part of the reason is that the Happy Hour offering of half-price appetizers from 4 to 6 p.m. is too good to pass up, and I’m often full after a couple of those. That said, I’m somewhat put off by the entrees as they seem a bit too fussy, like the chefs are trying to do too much with each dish. Take for example the Flat Iron Steak entrée. It’s described as “teriyaki marinated steak served over garlic mashed potatoes with a horseradish Dijon sauce and topped with sautéed onions and mushrooms.” It gives me a headache to think of all those flavors on one plate. So, while I wanted something else after our appetizers, I ended up simply ordering the French Onion Soup. It was a delicious and satisfying crock of caramelized onions served in a rich, beefy stock and topped with the traditional crouton and not-so-traditional but yummy nonetheless Havarti cheese.

I ended up ordering my standby burger, served on a bulkie roll with lettuce and tomato and a side of crispy fries. As always, it was juicy and flavorful, but too big to eat after the mussels and "garlic" bread—especially since we wanted to leave room for dessert. But nothing grabbed us from the dessert menu (here again, a little too much going on, e.g., Devil’s Food Red Velvet cake – which is it?) so Amy trusted me to order bartender Kara’s specialty espresso martinis. They rock. It’s hard to find a martini anywhere for 8 dollars these days; this one is worth every penny. Vanilla vodka, Kahlua, crème de cacao, shaken with a shot of espresso make this martini a perfect end to a meal, and a perfect reason to come back again.

Well, that, the consistently good service, and the fact that we still haven’t tried any entrées.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

ON20, Hartford, CT February 2009

Food: A-
Service: A+

Joanne and Amy write:

In our next lives, we'd like to be ladies who lunch...or at least women who get to enjoy lunch out more often, so our decision to try ON20 during our February vacation was perfect. ON20, located on the 20th floor of 1 State St in Hartford, which formerly housed the Polytechnic Club, is a lunch-only restaurant, but more importantly, it is an experience.

We entered the sparse lobby and walked up two half-flights of stairs to reach the bank of elevators. A sign advised us to enter the number of our floor and then flashed a letter indicating which elevator would be coming for us. When we reached the 20th floor, we saw the doors to the restaurant that were marked only by a small sign. The maitre d', a friendly, welcoming gentleman, took our coats and led us to our table by the window where we took in the view of Hartford and the Connecticut River. Too bad it was a gray February afternoon, and that there were so few diners in this grand dining room.

Our table was exquisitely set with beautiful china chargers, sparkling glassware and silverware, and two sets of miniature salt and pepper shakers. The maitre d' returned to hand us menus. Surprisingly, there was no wine list, but he asked, "Red or white?" and then verbally listed the wines available by the varietal rather than by the vineyard. A pleasant female server poured our water and asked whether we had any food allergies or time constraints, something we thought was a nice touch.

Menu options at lunch include a power business lunch, a three course prix fixe, and a tasting lunch. All options tout local and seasonal ingredients, something for which the chef is known. There were also some additions to the menu, most of which involved fish. Amy had decided in advance to try three courses, and I waffled--until the last moment--between the power lunch and the three course menu. In the end I went with two courses from the business lunch menu and wished I had, like Amy, thrown caution to the wind and gone for the prix fixe. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. One course, one mouthful at a time.

The server delivered an amuse bouche of Coquilles St. Jacques, then a bread basket including sourdough rolls that were a bit dry, and slices of rye that had a hint of molasses. The scallop was what it should be - a tasty one-bite morsel topped with crunchy Parmesan that whetted our appetites. Next, we enjoyed our appetizers and the accompaniment of white wine that was delivered compliments of the chef. I had ordered mussels in a garlicky yellow saffron sauce. There were plenty of them to share, and they were tender and delicious. The sauce was enhanced by bits of tarragon and was perfect for dipping the toast points. The finger bowl with warm water and lemon wedge and fresh linen napkin for wiping, delivered after I finished, was another nice touch.

I sampled Amy's mussels while I enjoyed a salad of delicate greens, bleu cheese, pears, and toasted walnuts. The salad was lightly (that is, perfectly) dressed with a maple balsamic vinaigrette. The blue cheese was decadently creamy and not overly pungent. The walnuts were candied and provided a sweetness and crunch that brought the salad together.

My burger, unfortunately, was less than memorable. In fact, it was disappointing. While it was cooked as I had asked, medium, it was pink in the center but not a bit juicy. As I ate it, not a drip of the deliciousness I seek in a burger landed on the plate or the sweet brioche roll or my chin. The pomme frites were quite good, however, and saved the course for me. Well, the pomme frites and tastes of Amy's cassoulet.

I had the suckling pig cassoulet, which was to die for. It was slightly deconstructed, served as a cast iron crock of flavorful upscale pork and beans topped with browned seasoned bread crumbs, with a perfectly grilled piece of pork and two spicy rabbit sausages, served on the side. I enjoyed it very much.

We ordered espresso and with it, received a second amuse - chocolate truffle coins with a piece of caramelized sugar. The maitre d' rolled over a dessert cart covered in treats including succulent blackberries, strawberries and raspberries, fresh pineapple chunks, and a variety of cakes and tarts. I chose a slice of flourless chocolate cake that was light and airy and a perfect end to the meal. Joanne received a "sympathy" beignet since dessert was not included with her lunch and she chose not to order one a la carte. Finally, a complimentary plate full of nickel-size cookies and truffles to enjoy with our second espresso was delivered.

We shared this sampling of bite size cookies--whose flavors included peanut butter, almond, and chocolate-- as we drank our espressos and I sipped an amaretto, reveling in the fact that a bell or PA message wouldn't beckon us back to class. It certainly was a treat, and an extravagance.

With overpriced wine, and espressos, and the 20 percent tip built in as a "service charge"(albeit well-deserved), our total bill was high. Given my share of the tab, which I have paid for a satisfying dinner for two, and the fact that I have had a better burger for 10 dollars, I might keep this at a once in a lifetime experience. Amy, I imagine, will return, perhaps to share the experience with her husband.

Indeed, ON20 does not offer a typical lunch, but a dining experience that happens to take place during the afternoon. Although I agree the wine was overpriced, as in most restaurants these days, I thought the $35 cost for the three-course menu was appropriate. Taking that into consideration, as well as the exceptional service and the many special touches found only at fine dining locations, I highly recommend ON20 as a destination for a luxurious lunch, for ladies and gentlemen alike.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Sawadee Thai Cuisine, South Windsor, CT February 2009

Food: A
Service: A

Amy and Joanne write:

"Sawadee" is Thai for the greeting "Hello." It is a warm welcome in the language as much as it is the feeling you get when you enter the small, almost hidden, Thai restaurant in South Windsor by the same name. I have visited Sawadee quite a few times since it opened a few years ago, and have always felt welcomed by the hospitable staff and comfortable interior. Good-luck elephants and Hindu goddesses adorn the walls, and current magazines are available for those waiting for take-out.

The menu offers traditional Thai dishes including a variety of noodles, curries, and fried rices made with the customer's choice of protein (chicken, beef, tofu, seafood). Duck is also on the menu, and that is one of my absolute favorite foods, so I always get the same thing when I go here: the Panang Duck, which is a crispy 1/4 duck served with green beans and peas in a light but spicy coconut-based curry sauce. Like most entrees, it is served with steamed white rice. Since I was visiting with Joanne, I thought I'd try something least in the form of appetizers to share.

After living several years in Boston I have often lamented the lack of ethnic food (especially Thai) in my area of Connecticut, so I was eager to get turned on to a Thai restaurant close enough to home with votes of approval from Amy and Chris as well as a couple of other friends who live close by Sawadee. After looking at the menu on line, in preparation for our Thai adventure, Amy agreed to share my appetizer choices of fresh spring rolls and angel shrimp (which she told me, after I suggested them, is one of her favorites). Well, at least one appetizer would be different for her.

Shortly after we were seated, our water glasses were filled with ice cold water flavored with a hint of lime, and our orders were taken. A few minutes later, our glasses of wine were delivered, and our spring rolls arrived a moment after that. The presentation was exquisite--four half rolls standing in the center of a plate, garnished with shredded carrots and cilantro sprigs, served with a small ramekin of spicy peanut sauce. The rice paper was moist and the rolls were indeed fresh and crispy -- filled with sushi rice, shredded carrots, cilantro and tofu. The sauce, served with a healthy dash of crushed peanuts, had a touch of coconut that added to its flavor.

When we were not quite done with our spring rolls, our angel shrimp arrived. Five pieces of shrimp, tails on and exposed, bodies in perfectly brown and crunchy fried wrappers, were fanned around a small dish of dipping sauce. After my first bite of shrimp, dipped in the thin but tasty plum sauce with flecks of red pepper, I understood why it's one of Amy's favorites. As we finished our appetizers I wanted to make more appear, but it worked just as well that our dinners were presented instead.

The panang duck was as delicious as always. The duck was deboned for ease of eating and had a dark brown crispy skin. It was tossed with bright green peas and string beans, as well as julienned kaffir leaves that offered a flavor note of lime. Surrounding all of these was an orange-red coconut-curry sauce that was spicy enough to give me the sniffles, but sweet enough to pour over my sticky white rice. I. Love. This. Dish.

My chicken dish--Pra Ram-- was a beautiful plate of chicken breast pieces pounded thin and served with carrots; bite size, vibrant broccoli florets arranged around the perimeter; and--hidden underneath--bok choy; all tossed in a creamy peanut sauce. The portion was generous, the chicken was tender, and the vegetables still had a nice bite. Most importantly, the flavor was what my taste buds desired--peanut sauce with just the right hint of heat. I was happy to have sauce left on the plate to dress my sticky rice. I love peanut sauce the way Amy loves duck, and this is a dish I would order again. Meaning I'd come here again to dine or take out.

Our excellent food was accompanied by excellent service. Our young server was attentive and courteous, refilling water glasses as needed and checking on satisfaction with every course. She smiled often, and offered polite words in a quiet voice.

For great Thai food "East of the River," Sawadee is a welcome treasure.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Outback Steakhouse, Enfield, CT January 2009

Food: A-

Joanne and Amy write:

If you're looking for a slow food experience, Outback Steakhouse, like any other family restaurant chain, is not the place to go. Unless you pretend you don't know what you want for an entree while you enjoy your starter. (We know. We've done this to delay the delivery of a steak when we're only three bites into a salad.) If, on the other hand, you're looking for a reasonably priced and consistently good steak, we would both recommend the "Outback Special." Since we gave another restaurant a chance to compete, we thought it only right to take our gradebooks to what we consider the standard against which we measured.

True to form I ordered an Outback special, and since I hadn't had steak in a while (2 weeks!), I decided to splurge on the 9 oz (medium, please) for $14.95. All dinners are served with a choice of two sides, and--as always--I chose to start with a house salad and have green beans to accompany my steak. Amy did the same, only she exercised some restraint and ordered a 6 oz. (medium rare) for $9.99. Oh, and since we were in the mood to take our time and a breath between courses, we did stall on ordering our steaks until we were eating bread and our salads.

The honey-wheat bread came out warm but not quite as toasty as I would have liked, and while I thought the butter was lacking its usual sweetness, Joanne didn't notice a difference. Perhaps I was being overly critical after grading exams like a madwoman in a rush to get grades in on time. The chilled salads were fresh and crisp with a mix of iceberg and romaine lettuce, cucumber chunks, sliced red onion, juicy--room temperature--grape tomatoes, crunchy cheese-flavored croutons, shredded cheddar and sharp chunky bleu cheese. In other words, they were a great meal starter.

Shortly after we devoured the salads, our entrees arrived. Both perfectly grilled steaks were accompanied by bright green, crisp, French-style green beans that had been tossed in a nutty-flavored butter. The steaks were cooked the way we had ordered them, were juicy and fork-tender, and had that delightful blend of seasonings for which Outback is known. Even the 6-oz. was satisfying, and neither Joanne nor I had room for dessert, although the new miniature-sized sampler sweets sounded tempting. For those not into red meat, there is a wide variety of other menu choices including seasonal specials, entree salads, and several chicken and fish dishes.

We were there on the early side of dinner, around 5, when only one bartender was on-- taking care of both bar customers and doing service bar for customers seated in the dining room. Because the restaurant was not particularly busy she managed just fine, but had there been more customers to serve and satisfy, we probably would have felt neglected. That is to say the service was good, not stellar, but certainly worth 20 percent.

The steak dinners at Outback really are a great value. In this economy the pomp and circumstance (and price tags) of high end steak houses may have to take a back seat to a good beef bargain. Whether high end is never your style, or you're watching your wallet, "going Outback" is sure to satisfy.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Uno's Chicago Grill, Manchester, CT January 2009

Food: C+
Service: A-

Amy and Joanne write:

Happy New Year from Joanne and Amy!

For our first excursion of the new year, we chose Uno's Chicago Grill, or what used to be known as "Pizzeria Uno," or even simply, "Uno's." This evening we went to the one located in Manchester to see a man about a coupon. We all know that January, or what we like to call "Holiday Rehab," is a good time for a great deal, which is what we got via email from UCG: Buy one entree and get a free 6-oz. sirloin steak meal. Works for us.

Even though we were sans coupon, we mentioned the "Insiders" deal to the bartender who quickly produced a reasonable facsimile. Upon questioning, she touted the virtues of the new steak deal and suggested we order it medium or medium-rare (apparently to reduce shrinkage...). We got comfortable, started shelling the pre-appetizer peanuts, ordered our wine and gave the bartender the particulars of our entrees.

Today was not a day to restrict red meat intake, so we both chose the 6 oz. sirloin dinner, with a choice of two sides. We both chose to start with salads; to accompany our steaks, I ordered roasted vegetables, Amy ordered steamed.

The salads were mediocre at best. Think bagged lettuce complete with dry shredded carrots. Add one red onion ring, a couple coins of cucumber, a quarter wintry-pale tomato and croutons made from leftover bread that could have used another 5 minutes on 350 degrees, and there you have it. Unfortunately, the blue cheese dressing (oh, yeah, no skimping on salad dressing today either--midterms are coming up and we have a professional development workshop to sit through tomorrow afternoon!) was not able to redeem the salad. There was little authentic blue cheese flavor so the tanginess was out of place-- more likely from buttermilk than blue cheese. The blue cheese hurt my tongue.

The vegetables were weak, too. Roasted or steamed (we each ordered one kind), they both included bell peppers which overtook the flavor of all the other vegetables present. In fact, when our plates were placed in front of us, that was the predominant aroma: bell peppers.

Fortunately, the steak, which was the main attraction, delivered. Though there was little difference between mine (medium) and Amy's (medium rare), they were both juicy and tender and tasty, seasoned well. We enjoyed our steaks as well as the freshly baked Parmesan-dusted bread sticks that filled any leftover space in our stomachs not filled by those veggies.

Sitting at the bar, by definition, means your server will be the bartender, and today, she was one who recognized us from previous happy hours. She was attentive without hovering, familiar without creepiness, and honest without condescension. While complimenting our accessories, she smiled often and made us feel welcome. She enthusiastically recommended the steaks and willingly over poured our wines. The "minus" attached to the "A" comes from the fact that she left us without silverware, took a stress-inducing phone call in front of us, and at one point, left the bar (and our empty wine glasses!) unattended for several minutes. We have high standards!

Our server came closer to meeting our standards than the food did. The 6 ounce piece of meat was okay, but steak dinner was disappointing--definitely not as good as one served at one of our similarly priced restaurant favorites. But given that we were at what used to be a pizza joint, it definitely gets passing grades. And let's not forget, we had a coupon.

Bottom line: print a coupon and we will come.