Banh mi

Banh mi, downtown. (Staff photo / July 17, 2013)

Laetus Restaurant & Lounge

253 Asylum Ave., Hartford, (860) 216-1964, laetuslounge.com

 

Restaurants say a lot about a city. Flourishing food choices reflect the demographics, the diversity and taste of the region, and the loyalties of the locals. That's one reason to be happy about the arrival of Laetus Restaurant & Lounge, a new eclectic pan-Asian eatery with strong Vietnamese and Chinese leanings on Asylum Street in downtown Hartford. The menu offers "dim sum and then sum."

For over a decade I've been trumpeting some of Hartford's below-the-radar restaurants to friends from just outside the area. This kind of boosterism usually takes the form of encouraging people to visit Franklin Avenue for Colombian cuisine or Bosnian sausages. Or else I might point chowhounds toward Park Street for Puerto Rican, Portuguese, Brazilian or Vietnamese cooking. Head north on Main Street for some excellent Caribbean food, I might say. Downtown, of course, has always had its share of very good restaurants, places to dine before a show, or to have a posh business lunch and more. (There is, also, a very good Egyptian restaurant, Aladdin, on Allyn Street, which sort of masquerades as a pizza parlor.) But I've always felt that the downtown restaurant scene didn't fully represent the ethnic diversity and rainbow spectrum of Hartford. Maybe that's a bogus gripe — I'm no urban planner — still I can't help but feel that all of the effort that goes into marketing and promoting and rebranding Hartford, helping local businesses, etc., would be complemented by gustatory diplomacy. The way to people's hearts is through their stomachs, right?

Laetus has only been open for a little over a month. And so the place is still getting its sea legs. The website isn't fully up and running, and, depending on when you visit, sometimes the dining room and kitchen appear to be slightly understaffed. But the management is fine-tuning their operation, and one gets the sense that Hartford eaters want the place to succeed, so patience seems to be in the air.

I stopped by for lunch recently. I was psyched to find that banh mi and pho soup are now available downtown. That nicely rounds out the nearby boutique burgers, taco trucks, hot dog joints and gyro places. The menu at Laetus also includes Chinese steamed buns with marinated pork, sausage and watercress. And there are Asian twists on other semi-familiar items, like tempura-fried almond-stuffed dates wrapped in bacon. That's a lot of layers of sweet and salty and crunchy pleasure.

My lunch companion and I shared orders of dense shumai, refreshingly crisp summer rolls, a bowl of spicy beef noodle soup with pieces of tenderloin and pliant and pale slices of Vietnamese pork sausage. The rolls and shumai were workmanlike and satisfying, with sweet and tangy dipping sauces blending hints of umami, vinegar and sesame. The spicy soup had a robust broth, minus some of those notes of anise one sometimes catches, but with flashes of heat, the earthiness of scallions and cilantro perfume. The banh mi could stand up to the best of the region's versions of these delightful Vietnamese/French hybrid sandwiches. Pickled strips of carrots and radish were tangled with fresh cilantro and sweet barbecued pork.

The kitchen had run out of those yummy-sounding steam buns, but the chef brought out a complimentary order of chopped shrimp spring rolls to apologize for that lapse. This was a nice touch.

Laetus has a nice broad beer selection, with regional brews on tap and several Thai and Asian beers in bottles, as well as an impressive display of boutique spirits. It pitches itself as a place to go get some good drinks and to also be able to enjoy some small plates of tasty food. It's a simple concept that works because it works. The interior is streamlined and minimalistic. Laetus isn't straining to catch your attention. It's modeled on the idea that good reasonably priced food and drink within walking distance of pretty much everything downtown is its own reward. I'm rooting for them, and I imagine many Hartford boosters are as well.

 

Spicy beef noodle soup with pieces of tenderloin and pliant and pale slices of Vietnamese pork sausage. (staff photo)