Thursday, June 30, 2011
Hartford Food Guy Reviews: Feng Asian Bistro
The stretch of Asylum Street between Main and Trumbull has seen much better days. Now it just is surface parking on one side and a hodge-podge of old buildings and an ugly parking garage on the other. As late as the 1980’s, however, the block was still anchored by the venerable men’s store, Stackpole Moore & Tryon at the Trumbull Street end and the Hartford-Aetna National Bank Building (Hartford’s first skyscraper) at the Main Street end.
Jammed in along that stretch is an ugly old five story building that had the bad luck of having its façade re-done at the worst possible time (somewhere between 1960-1980). For many years the building was the home of Song Hays, probably the worst Chinese restaurant in which it was ever my displeasure to eat. A few years ago, however, the Ginza Restaurant Group gutted the place and opened Feng Asian Bistro, which has been a very welcome addition to the Hartford culinary scene.
Feng is all about Asian fusion. You will find some traditional Japanese fare (like a delicious bowl of miso soup), but really the cuisine is a mix of Japanese and western elements, techniques, and styles. The combinations are interesting, and by and large delicious. We have been there several times before (mostly with friends) and we haven’t been disappointed.
After being seated in the booth at the right in the picture, Mrs. HFG and I decided to open the festivities by ordering two “flights” of sake, each consisting of three different types of cold sake. In the interest of full disclosure, I love hot sake, but I am not a big fan of cold sake. Still, it looked interesting on the menu.
My trio ($13) consisted of three different traditional cold sakes, ranging from very dry to somewhat sweet. Somewhat like a Japanese baby bear, I thought the dry sake was too dry, the sweet sake too sweet, and the middle sake was just about right. Honestly, I don’t know that I’d order the Sake flight again, but I’m not sorry I tried it. You only live once, right?
My wife’s trio ($14) consisted of three different flavors of sake, though almost immediately after setting it down our waiter returned with a fourth cup and apologized because the bartender hand mis-poured one of the favors. She liked all four, though I did not care for them.
My wife started with a delicious bowl of miso soup with mushrooms and scallions ($6). Miso soup is made with miso paste, which is a combination of fermented rice, barley, or soybeans (most often soybeans) with salt and a particular fungus. The miso paste is then mixed with dashi, which is the quintessential Japanese stock and can be made with a variety of ingredients, though traditionally with dried kelp and dried flakes of tuna, put in water and brought to a boil then strained. The thing about miso soup is that the flavor is supposed to be there, but it should be very mild. The consistency has to be thicker than broth, but not too much. Thus, Miso soup is actually an easy dish to make badly. My wife’s soup, however, was very well balanced in terms of flavor and consistency.
I started with the duck spring rolls ($7) with a hoisin dipping sauce served with some shoestring sweet potato fries. I thought the duck was well done (i.e. not too gamey) and that the shoestring fries were a nice compliment, not only in terms of flavor and texture, but also adding an essentially Western element to the dish.
For dinner Mrs. HFG had the Dynamite Roll ($18), which is a great example of Feng’s fusion cooking. It consists of tempura jumbo soft-shell crab, spicy salmon, jalapeño and romaine lettuce inside and was topped with spicy tuna, shredded crispy kani with momiji sauce, eel sauce, and honey wasabi. Yes, that’s a ton of flavors and textures, not all of which are part of Japanese cuisine, and it would have been quite easy for that dinner to have gone off the rails. It didn’t. Frankly, my wife’s meal was delicious and a real medley of flavors and textures that combined and re-combined with different bites.
I had the rack of lamb ($37), which is about as fusion as it gets, right? My lamb was prepared in a spiced cider reduction with local carrots, parsnips, turnips, and pearl onions. It was quite good and the lamb was tender and cooked perfectly to the chef’s recommendation (medium rare).
I am not usually a fan of fusion cooking because it’s often an excuse for someone who hasn’t mastered even one type of cooking to try to cover that up by mixing two different types of cuisine. Often, the results are unspectacular (and sometimes even disastrous) but the chef hides behind how clever he (or she) supposedly is being by playing mix and match and acting like you are a gourmand if you don’t “get” it. That said, Feng does fusion right, with a strong base in well-prepared Japanese cuisine mixed intelligently with Western elements.
About the only bad thing I can say about Feng was that the service was not tight. The food moved out of the kitchen quickly and our table was cleared very efficiently, but our waiter had a less than complete knowledge of the menu, a bottle of Pellegrino took so long to appear that my wife was sure they had sent to Italy for it, and, as noted, the bartender put the wrong sake in my wife's trio. Still, our waiter was friendly and hardworking, so I can't be overly critical, but it is small things like that which separate a good experience from a great one.
Even though Feng is one of several places in the area (and Massachusetts) owned and operated by the Ginza Restaurant Group you do not get the feel you are eating in a chain, albeit a high- class chain. No, it definitely has a unique feel and is perfectly adapted to its space (which is very New York, being much longer than it is wide) with a great mix of colors, accents, and textures that contributes effectively to the Asian fusion theme without being tacky.
On the whole, however, my wife and I had a good meal and a good time. While dinner was by no means cheap ($112 including tip), it was a very fair price to pay for a very solid meal. Feng is quite different than most restaurants in the area, and the food is quite good, which means Mrs. HFG and I will be going back when our palettes need a challenge and a change of pace.