David Borselle knows Italian food, having completed culinary studies abroad in Asti. And after seven years of experience at Madison's Bar Bouchée and West Hartford's Àvert Brasserie, he's fluent in French cuisine.
But for his next venture, he's traded escargot and bourguignon for distinctly American comfort fare like fried chicken, macaroni and cheese and shrimp and grits. Borselle and business partners Robert and David Savin opened Park & Oak Restaurant in West Hartford on Nov. 30, once again bringing an eatery to the corner of Park Road and Oakwood Avenue.
Borselle was looking to create a casual and affordable destination, something between a "wings and nachos" place and the town's fancier, pricier special-occasion spots.
"As much as I loved French food and was successful at it, I wanted to do something more appealing, more familiar, so that I could see my friends and family more than once a month."
The 50-seat restaurant was most recently home to Peck & Pour and before that Brownstone Cafe. When the new owners took over the space, they completed a full renovation, customizing it with oak wood furniture and a long quartz bar. Borselle calls the new look "contemporary but comfortable."
Guests have worked their way through the appetizers and shareable plates ($5.95 to $11.95), Borselle says, mixing and matching and sampling much of the menu. Early favorites include Rhode Island-style fried calamari, slow-roasted beef brisket sliders and assorted bruschetta with roasted tomato and goat cheese; baked Brie with truffle honey and roasted mushroom and ricotta. Pimento cheese dip, a nod to the American South, is served with toast and fresh vegetables; it also shows up in a sandwich, on country bread with tomatoes.
Park & Oak's fried chicken has been an instant hit, available with biscuits and spicy pepper jam as a starter ($9.95) or as a main course ($15.95) with waffles, smoked cheddar and maple-bourbon syrup. Others love its simplest preparation — a basket of bone-in pieces with a biscuit, coleslaw and Tabasco honey (also $15.95).
Borselle won't give away any hints to the recipe, but says he uses organic whole chickens, broken down and marinated in a buttermilk brine for 24 hours. The pieces are coated in seasoning flour (another secret blend) and fried in vegetable oil; each basket portion is a half-chicken's worth.
"When they see it, they're like, 'Oh man, I could never eat [all] this,'" he says. "Then all of a sudden, their plates are clean."
Other entrees ($13.95 to $23.95) include the popular shrimp and grits with Tasso ham, roasted mushrooms and lobster sauce; macaroni and cheese with Vermont cheddar and add-ons like garlic shrimp, brisket and black truffle butter; and Cajun-seasoned catfish with sweet potato mash. A traditional spaghetti carbonara with egg, bacon, peas and Parmesan is gilded with lobster, and Borselle would like to make more fresh pastas in-house, like ravioli. Produce, dairy and other ingredients are sourced locally; Borselle works closely with producers like Field House Farm in Madison, Starlight Gardens in Durham and dairy providers like Farmer's Cow.
Regulars now know to save room for dessert ($6.50 to $8): a lemon tart with strawberries, a Bailey's crème brulee and a dark and milk-chocolate bread pudding, served warm and topped with with pistachio ice cream.
Draft beer options focus on breweries in Connecticut and the Northeast, and Borselle is proud of the wine list, with non-mainstream choices intended to introduce people to smaller, family-owned producers. Featured cocktails include a Kentucky Mule with Wild Turkey bourbon, a blood orange margarita, mint julep and a French 75 with a hint of lavender.
Happy hour runs daily from 4 to 6 p.m., with an array of small bites ($3 to $6) and specials on beer, house wine and select cocktails. Lunch begins Jan. 23, with expanded sandwich and salad options.
Park & Oak brings a relaxed neighborhood-hangout vibe to the area, for which local residents are grateful, Borselle says.
"Luckily, so far, we've had a great reception. ... We're actually looking forward to our first snowstorm. We have so many people who live here in the area who will just walk down. We'll be open. It'll be pretty fun."
Park & Oak, 14 Oakwood Ave., West Hartford, opens daily at 4 p.m.; bar closes at midnight Monday through Wednesday, 12:30 a.m. Thursday, 1:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday and 11 p.m. Sunday. 860-310-2099, parkandoakrestaurant.com.