Last week was Mrs. HFG's birthday, so on Saturday we decided to celebrate by going to Peppercorn's Grill on Main Street, right at the edge of Downtown (just north of the intersection of Main and Buckingham Street). For those that don’t know, Peppercorn's has been around since 1989 and has won many local awards and has a very loyal following. Although Peppercorn’s is a good restaurant, the HFG just doesn't see how it can be ranked among the best in Hartford, let alone the area, or how it consistently wins so many local awards.
I know that what I just wrote is probably the most controversial thing I've said in a long time ("There's only 1 reason to go to West Hartford Center to eat and that's the Shish Kebab House of Afghanistan" is probably the most controversial). I also know that what I just wrote won't make any of my Downtown friends and neighbors too happy (many of whom are regulars at, or at least strong supporters of, this neighborhood institution). That said, neither the food nor the service (nor the atmosphere for that matter) at Peppercorn's is top notch.
To start, I had stuffed artichokes with escargot ($12) which were delicious. I thought they balanced each other quite well and that the taste of the artichokes did not overwhelm the escargot.
Mrs. HFG had the lobster bisque ($11). It was fine, but certainly not spectacular.
We also had a salad course, with my wife ordering a chopped salad ($7) and me ordering the special salad ($11). My wife’s salad was overdressed, but otherwise OK.
My salad, however, was good. It consisted of field greens, melon, caramelized walnuts, vanilla, and goat cheese with a vinaigrette dressing. The goat cheese was particularly memorable, as were the walnuts. It was, however, a tad heavy on the vanilla, which made an otherwise great salad merely good.
For dinner I had the ossobuco, which was braised with white wine, herbs, garlic, lemon zest, porcini mushroom essence, and a gremolata ($27). If you know the HFG, you know he loves ossobuco and I thought Peppercorn’s offering stacked up fairly well, though both Mrs. HFG and I thought there was some grit in the demiglaze, which bespoke of using a veal base to hasten the process (:< x 5). Still, it was pretty good.
Mrs. HFG had the risotto del giorno ($26). Mrs. HFG really appreciated the fact that they used fresh corn, which added some great flavor, and she liked the overall taste. She was, however, correct to point out that the consistency was off, being far too stiff; not the end of the world, but not exactly Michelin Star material either.
My wife and I couldn’t agree on red or white wine, so we went our separate ways, with her ordering 2 glasses of the Berendaga chianti ($10/glass) and me ordering 2 glasses of the Groth sauvignon ($9/glass). My wine was good, but not memorable, but I thought Mrs. HFG’s chianti had a great nose and taste to match.
We had cake at home leftover from a small party some of Mrs. HFG’s friends had thrown for her the night before, so we skipped desert.
While our dinner was pretty good, the service was below average, which is completely unacceptable in a fine dining establishment. Our server was overly familiar, not overly energetic, not particularly well-versed in the menu, and made a rather sarcastic remark as I was taking some notes as she was reciting the specials (one of the notes I made was “make sure to mention that the server made a sarcastic remark while I was writing down what I wanted to eat”). Not good, though I will say the other servers in the dining room seemed to move faster and have a better knowledge of the menu, including the one who told the table near us that the soft shell crabs were fresh (at least from the fish market) that day (“had I known that,” grumbled Mrs. HFG, “that’s what I would have ordered for my appetizer”). Perhaps we were just unlucky, but good service in a good restaurant shouldn’t be a matter of luck.
The atmosphere at Peppercorn’s is, I think, supposed to be evocative of a romantic Italian trattoria, with deep tones, low lighting, and cozy seating. It has those things, but frankly the interior is tired, the seating is somewhat cramped, and the place is noisy. I will admit, however, that the new dining area (in the space where Spiritus used to be before it moved to Asylum Street) is much more spacious and fresh, and also that having that extra room does cut down a bit on the noisiness of the original dining area. That new room, however, still doesn’t do all that much for you if you are sitting (as we were) in the old dining area.
Total tab, including an adequate (but by no means generous) tip, came to $172.22; expensive for the overall experience.
After reading this, you might be thinking that Peppercorn's is not that good, or you might be thinking that the HFG is crazy. One is true. Yes, the HFG might have one or two screws loose (:> x 5) but no, he's not saying that Peppercorn's isn't good. He's saying it's just it isn't great either.