The timing seemed ideal for West Hartford, a booming Connecticut dining destination, to finally have its own culinary celebration.
An estimated 1,000 guests attended Saturday's inaugural West Hartford Wine and Food Festival, a showcase of fine wines and upscale cuisine held outdoors on the grounds of the Kingswood Oxford school. The festival, presented by Maximum Beverage and lead wine sponsor JUSTIN Vineyards & Winery, served as a fundraiser for select town independent schools in support of need-based financial aid and scholarships.
More than 30 participating restaurants and vendors offered signature fare, with wood-fired pizza from Savoy Pizzeria & Craft Bar's traveling oven; tacos from the newly-opened Chango Rosa in Hartford; lamb ragu-topped hummus and grilled octopus from West Hartford's Zohara; and decadent housemade focaccia garlic bread with gorgonzola cream from Butchers & Bakers, the new Farmington spot from the owners of b Restaurants. Local favorites like Seoul BBQ & Sushi, INDIA and The Rockin Chicken featured authentic Korean, Indian and Peruvian dishes.
Others opted to highlight seasonal and summery flavors, like ON20's whipped house ricotta with strawberries, local honey and granola; a chilled corn soup with crabmeat from Grants Restaurant & Bar; a watermelon and pork belly salad from Carbone's Kitchen; chilled lobster and corn salad from Park & Oak and lobster sliders from @ the Barn. More than 250 wines were available for sampling, with each vendor's dish paired with suggestions from a neighboring wine table.
A dessert, artisan and coffee tent offered sweets and more from vendors like Cato Corner Farm, Popover Bistro & Bakery, Killam & Bassette and Sub Edge Farms. Clark Farms at Bushy Hill Orchard lured guests with a rich apple cider doughnut bread pudding.
Festival attendees also got a preview of Artisan at the soon-to-open Delamar Hotel in Blue Back Square, described as a "casual-elegant dining experience and tavern with sustainable, seafood-focused dishes." Executive chef Frederic Kieffer, who also oversees the Delamar hotel restaurants Artisan in Southport and L'Escale in Greenwich, said the West Hartford location should be open by August.
"We want it to be a friendly place, relaxed, [with] very sharp service," he said.
KC Ward, who owns Newington's Rooster Company with his wife, Jaime, is working toward a September opening for a new West Hartford concept, Flora. The restaurant will operate within the town's American Legion Hayes-Velhage Post 96 space on Raymond Road.
Flora will offer a plant-based menu, Ward said, offering largely vegan and vegetarian offerings with a few seafood dishes and what he calls "viable fauna" - items with meats that are locally sourced and raised humanely. "A sustainable future model of food source for this country, and really beyond, is kind of what I see this menu format being," he said.
Ward said he and his wife have been eating a mostly vegan diet in recent years. "It's something I feel really passionate about, as a participant in directing where this food culture is going, and I feel really lucky to have the opportunity to share that in a space."
A portion of proceeds from Saturday's event will benefit Kingswood Oxford, Intensive Education Academy, American School for the Deaf, Northwest Catholic, Solomon Schechter, Renbrook School, St. Brigid St. Augustine Partnership School, and The Watkinson School.
"Any time you can have an event like this and it's going to generate some funds that go back to our schools for financial aid purposes, it’s awesome," said Sheri Slobin Shea, director of Kingswood Oxford's Camp KO. The camp, which offers 75 one-week scholarships to students in Hartford, offers popular programs in a cappella music, sports, fine arts, mock trial and computer science, as well as culinary courses taught by chef and educator Lindsay Perkins.
Christianna Connery, Intensive Education Academy's director of resource development and community relations, said the event's fundraising would help supplement the school's programs for individual learning strategies. The West Hartford school offers programs for students with autism, learning disabilities and other special needs.
"Our programs are individualized by the student, which is very expensive," Connery said, noting that the school has been working on expanding its kindergarten program and increasing its technology, like iPads for students to help with executive functioning. "Having things like this in the community to help support us certainly makes it easier."