Elmwood Gets A Clam Shack

The Hartford Courant

Add "modern clam shack" to the ever-expanding restaurant options in West Hartford's Elmwood neighborhood. HB Seafood opened in March on New Britain Avenue, serving classic shoreline-style fare.

The "HB" initials are a clue, representing the background of owners Matt and Juntimar Malahan. The couple has owned and operated the Thai eatery Hot Basil, less than a mile away on New Park Avenue, since 2006. Two years ago, they began to consider plans for a second restaurant in the area.

"We toyed with idea of doing another Thai place, but in the end, we thought there was a need for this," said Matt Malahan, who said he and his wife love "the casual, clam shack places you find on the shore or on the Cape."

Though there's no salt air or ocean view in Elmwood, the 32-seat fast-casual, counter service restaurant still evokes some beach feel: natural light fills the space, painted in light sky-blue and accented with ocean décor and Narragansett Brewing Company logos. Diners order from a chalkboard menu.

The fresh seafood offerings are streamlined, but still hit all the favorites: calamari with marinara and lemon aioli, Prince Edward Island mussels in white wine and garlic, chowder, sandwiches, lobster and fried shellfish platters. You'll also find a touch of the Malahans' Asian cooking expertise in the firecracker shrimp with sambal mayo and crispy Thai calamari tossed with fried whole chiles, cilantro and a light garlic-lime sauce.

Sandwiches ($12 to $18) include pan-fried cod or blackened salmon on toasted brioche, a roll with 100 percent lump blue crab meat and a Maine lobster roll, made from lobster steamed and hand-picked in house. Its preparation, served cold with mayonnaise, may stir a bit of controversy among Connecticut seafood lovers who prefer lobster rolls served hot with butter. But Matt Malahan says that's how he prefers his.

"We tried to get away with the Maine [style] to start," he said. "The Connecticut style, you can get that upon request."

Entrees ($9 to $16) include fish and chips in Narragansett beer batter; fish tacos with avocado, pickled red onion and chipotle aioli; platters with whole belly clams, clam strips or fried shrimp and a shrimp quesadilla. Each entrée and sandwich is served with a choice of two sides: slaw, fries, salad, chips or brown rice.

The Malahans run specials on occasion, like a recent offering of bluefish tacos and various soups (in addition to chowder.) Soft shell crabs are up next, Matt Malahan said, and they plan to add a Thai glass noodle salad with shrimp for the summer months. They're also trying to replicate a tempura-fried Dungeness crab they tried in San Francisco, but with a 1½-pound lobster.

HB Seafood holds a beer and wine license, and the drinks also follow a coastal theme: Narragansett from Rhode Island and Cisco Brewing from Nantucket, along with beers from Ipswich Ale Brewery, Newport Storm and Cottrell Brewing. Wines with beach and sea-inspired names (Lobster Reef, Coastal Vines) are also available. Malahan says he plans to expand the beer and wine in the coming weeks.

Feedback from customers has been "amazing, very communal," Malahan said, with about 60 percent of diners staying to enjoy food in the restaurant and another 40 percent taking it to go. He and Juntimar have been sending diners from Hot Basil to HB and vice versa, he said. "We have people who come in here and have no idea we own Hot Basil; also, people [at the Thai restaurant] who have no idea we're down the street."

Now in its ninth year, Hot Basil's business has been steady and consistent, Malahan said, enough where it prompted him and his wife to consider expansion. "We were able to walk away and focus on something else," he said. "We're already talking about a third [restaurant.]"

>>HB Seafood, 1142 New Britain Ave. in West Hartford, is open daily from noon to 8 p.m. Information: 860-206-9466 and hbseafood.com.

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