With its low self-esteem and high urban blight, Hartford is the ultimate underdog city. Sad City Hartford documents the joys, sorrows and eccentricities of New England's Rising Star.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Polytechnic On20

The Hartford Food Guy returns with a review of a The Polytechnic On20; perhaps Hartford's fanciest restaurant.

We can't say we have been there and probably the only way we are going to be getting in the door is to apply for a dishwashing job (which at the rate things are going one of us might be doing in the near future) so we really can't throw our two cents in on this one. We'll let the Hartford Food Guy take it over from here.

Henry James wrote that Hartford was the richest little city in America. Indeed, as late as the 1970’s Hartford was not only the insurance capital of the world, it was also a regional banking center (when there were still regional banks) and home to Colt Firearms and Royal Typewriter.

Those days are long gone, of course. In fact, even the venerable Hartford Club is no longer the preserve of the WASP-elite (who are all pretty much gone too), but rather a business club for lawyers, middle-managers, and other haut-bourgeoisie types with just enough money, education, and status to pass for rich and powerful in a town that has seen much better days.

Still, however, there is one place that really harkens back to the days when tiny Hartford was a national city; the Polytechnic On20 Restaurant (“Polytechnic” being derived from the Polytechnic Club, which used to occupy the location). Located (you guessed it) on the 20th floor of the Hartford Steam Boiler building (One State Street for all you GPS geeks), On20 is about as fine as fine dining gets in this area.

On20 is open Monday thru Friday for lunch, and Friday nights for cocktails and dinner. It also hosts many high-level events and major political fundraisers. I have been there for lunch several times and it is impressive, above and beyond the food and service. We are talking power-lunch to about the 9th power.

Indeed, I have seen Congressman John Larson lunching there, listening carefully to serious looking white-haired men talk about who knows what and more or less every table is packed with similarly-stern gentlemen (and the occasional lady) who are no doubt moving and shaking, at least to the extent that anyone moves and shakes in Hartford anymore.

Let’s put it this way, if you go to Max Downtown for lunch, you will see many leading lawyers, stockbrokers, and upper-middle management types from the insurance companies. If you go to On20, you will see the folks that the people eating at Max Downtown work for.

My wife and I decided to go there to celebrate my birthday, but there was no room in the inn the last two weeks, so we couldn’t get a table until last night (don’t they know who the HFG is?!?!?). It was, however, well worth the wait.

My wife started with an absolutely magnificent croque madame, comprised of a quail egg with a slice of ham on perfectly toasted bread with lovely melted French cheese. She thought it was one of the best appetizers she’s had in a very long time and I don’t disagree. Working with quail eggs is no easy thing as they are small and delicate and easily overwhelmed by other flavors. My wife’s dish, however, was perfectly balanced and a well-constructed bite resulted in four different textures (soft cheese, crunchy bread, chewy ham, and slimy egg yolk) and four different flavors (the sharp cheese, the delicious bread, the tangy ham, and the delicate quail egg) coming together in your mouth like a symphony. It was just magnificent and strong testimony to what an excellent chef can do with the most basic of ingredients. It also came with some delicious homemade chips, which was a great compliment from both a textural and taste point of view.

If you follow this blog you won’t be surprised that I had the charcuterie for my appetizer. It consisted of three very attractive preparations; pate, in a thin crust that reminded me of a spring roll; fois gras (:> x 10) bounded by the thinnest of crusts on two sides, and a what looked like a very mild pepperoni or salami in a block (like you might serve fois gras or pate), but which was made from duck. It was absolutely outstanding.

For dinner, my wife had seared tuna over soba noodles, straw mushrooms, and peppers, in a savory sauce. We both thought her dinner was quite nice, with an excellent balance of flavors and textures. In fact, Chef Noel Jones is a master at mixing his textures and flavors to produce subtle and delicious combinations that really unfold as you eat. At first, my wife was only moderately impressed, but as she got deeper into the dish she begin to see (and taste) the medley that Chef Jones had created.

I had the medallions of venison au juis, with head cheese in a green sauce (the color of the wasabi paste served with sushi, though there was no wasabi in it) that tasted of either spring onions or leeks (probably spring onions, since they would have given the sauce its color). I have had venison before and even when it is properly prepared it tends to be a bit tough and gamey. Not last night. Cooked medium rare (to the chef’s recommendation) it was wonderfully tender and with the juis and the sauce quite flavorful.

I won’t lie, I was excited to try head cheese based on the recommendation of Anthony Bourdain. For the uninitiated, head cheese isn’t cheese at all, but rather a terrine or meat jelly made with flesh from the head (though usually not the brain, eyes, or ears) of a calf, a pig, a sheep, or even a cow, and often set in aspic, which is a gelatin made from consommé or meat-stock. Sadly, it didn’t live up to Bourdain’s hype. The texture was soft and not particularly chewy, which was a good contrast to the venison, but I didn’t pick up a whole lot of flavor.

Still, my dinner was excellent and I have no complaints.

With our dinner we ordered a bottle of Washington state cab, called Pitch. At about $40, it was a perfectly satisfactory selection. Actually, for the price it was very nice with a great nose (lots of cherry) and a wonderful hint of cinnamon.

For desert, my wife had the cheese plate, which came with a selection of French cheeses, crackers, and delicious, but not overly sweet, honey (which cut the sharpness of the cheese quite nicely). One of the cheeses was particularly pungent and while I wouldn’t eat it on a regular basis, with a little honey on a cracker, it was great way to challenge the pallet.

I had the so-called cookies and cream, which was a small (but incredibly delicious) chocolate torte with a white chocolate mouse and a small two-layered chocolate cookie. It was fantastic (:> x 25).

I also had a cup of perfectly made cappuccino. That sounds like a small thing, but a lot of non-Italian restaurants (and, sadly, even a few Italian restaurants) can’t seem to do better than liquid drek when making cappuccino. On20, however, got it exactly right, which was a perfect way to end an excellent meal.

The service at On20 is impressive, though I have to say it seems just a bit tighter at lunch than it did at dinner last night. Still, the staff last night was prompt, efficient, polite, well-versed in the menu and the wine list, and well put-together. In fact, probably the worst thing I can say about it was that the hostess handed my coat to me before she handed Mrs. HFG’s coat to her. If that’s the low point, you are doing pretty well.

You only get a partial sense of it from the picture, but the view from On20 is spectacular, as it wraps around the south and west sides of the Steam Boiler Building, giving diners a view of downtown, the Travelers Tower, the Science Center and the Connecticut River. That alone makes it worth the trip. The décor in On20 is formal but relatively simple, which is good because it doesn’t detract from the food, the service, or the often very serious purpose for eating there.

My only real complaint about last evening was the other diners. When I posted about Max Downtown I went on a mini-diatribe about people who go to fine dining establishments “wearing jeans, sweaters, and sneakers, with their similarly attired bratty eight-year-olds in tow.” Last PM wasn’t quite that bad, but it wasn’t good either.

First, there were the young ladies wearing cocktail dresses that would have been too short for them when they were 12, let alone 22. Dear God.

They, however, were easily eclipsed by their gentleman (and I use that term loosely) friend, who wore his dress sneakers to compliment his blue blazer and dress slacks. He, in turn, was eclipsed by the doctor (or nurse) at the next table that came to dinner in his scrub shirt and a pair of khakis. By comparison, the half-dozen men scattered throughout the dining room wearing coats but not ties, or light colored suits (it’s only March!) seemed properly-attired.

Gentlemen, On20 is a first class place and it merits first class attire. Go rent Dr. No, Goldfinger, or any other classic Bond movie. You will see 007 wearing a dinner jacket, a bespoke (i.e. hand made) suit, a bathing suit, or nothing at all. We can’t all be Sean Connery, or even Roger Moore for that matter, but we can at least be better than Larry the Cable Guy.

In any event, On20 is serious dining. The food is complicated, the atmosphere quite formal, and the prices are high (dinner last night came to just north of $210, including taxes and a fixed 20% gratuity). That said, for a fine-dining experience you won’t do better in this area, especially at lunchtime and if you fancy yourself a foodie, or a mover and shaker, then you must go there.


  1. Great Article...I've been wanting to check that place out for a while.

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