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 different...at 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.