Thursday, July 7, 2011
The Hartford Food Guy: Hot Tomato's
The Hartford Food Guy reviews Hot Tomato's
I knew there would come a day when I would have to visit Hot Tomato’s in Downtown. It’s not that there is anything wrong with Hot Tomato’s, it’s that its former owner Tom Altman was someone with whom I had done some business over the years and someone I considered a friend.
Even though Tom was not a cook, he was a very savvy businessman with a good sense of what people wanted to eat, and he built a small empire of restaurants. Tom’s death a few years ago was a devastating tragedy for many, many people and ultimately his restaurants were sold, one by one, to new owners.
I had been in Hot Tomato’s several times while it remained in Tom’s family after his death, but it never felt right. Something, or more accurately, someone, was missing.
Honestly, I was not looking forward to going back because I couldn’t help but think of Tom when I had gone to Hot Tomato’s after he had passed. That said, new ownership was giving it a go, I hadn’t been back since they took over, and life does go on, even if people we once knew and cared about are no longer with us. Thus, my wife and I decided to go there on a Saturday night for dinner.
Hot Tomato’s is appended to Union Station. It is an unusual space, with a big central dining area and bar occupying an add-on to the station, a kitchen and smaller dining area just to the north of the central dining area and within the station itself and just south of the hall of the station, and a small (and very nice) private dining room that opens off the area with the kitchen.
New ownership has freshened the place up considerably, but those familiar with the “old” Hot Tomato’s won’t be shocked by the décor or interior layout. Frankly, I think they did a great job of changing the feel of the restaurant just enough to put their own stamp on it without losing completely that familiar Hot Tomato’s feel.
We started with an order of Hot Tomato’s famous garlic bread, except it wasn’t. The “traditional” Hot Tomato’s garlic bread was made on Italian scali-type bread, with plenty of garlic and cheese. Our bread was more of a baguette, with not very much garlic at all, and a lot more cheese.
Unfortunately, the garlic bread was pretty ordinary. I am sure there was a sense that a new twist needed to be put on the menu, which is true, but I would not have changed a signature menu item.
We also split a chopped salad. The portion was enormous (more than enough for two) and the salad was pretty good, with crisp romaine, apples, cucumber, bacon, and a few other things. It was, however, way overdressed, which really detracted from the experience even though the dressing (which had a hint of mustard) was pretty good.
For dinner Mrs. HFG had the Brooklyn ragu with 2 meatballs over fettuccine and I had the lobster fra diavlo over fettuccine. Both portions were more than generous, though neither meal was outstanding.
The lobster fra diavlo could have been very good (they did not skimp on the lobster :>) but for the fact that the garlic was burned and that they either added the fettuccine after everything else had cooked or the plate had sat in the pass for too long. The problem was that much of the spice and flavor was at the bottom of the dish, either dragged down by the moisture of the lobster, or the result of simply having plopped the pasta on top of the rest of the dish (rather than adding the pasta for the last bit of cooking so as to let it become infused with the flavors of the dinner).
My wife’s dinner was more problematic. The meatballs were OK, but nothing special, as there was some flavor but not a whole lot. The ragu was a very simple tomato sauce with not much else going on, including an absence of basil or oregano (“Italian food for beginners,” grumbled Mrs. HFG).
One positive note on both dinners was that the pasta was cooked correctly and not overdone.
The total tab for dinner (including bottled water, 2 beers for me, and a glass of wine for Mrs. HFG), including tip, was $119 - pricey for the quality.
Our server was very friendly and hard-working. She was also pretty young and inexperienced, however. Still, she did a solid job, even if she lacked polish.
The new Hot Tomato’s is like the old Hot Tomato’s in as much as it is still a good casual dining spot with a sort of upscale feel. The menu has changed, but a lot of old favorites remain (or have been changed only a little).
It still isn’t fine dining, however, nor is it a perfect causal experience either as there is a lot of work to be done on the execution side. That said, they are working hard to keep the Hot Tomato’s legacy going, and you ought to give them a shot.