Justin Lovelace admits he might have underestimated his customers' infatuation with fried chicken and waffles. It was the most popular item during the soft opening of his new West Hartford restaurant Hearty Kitchen, and during a recent Saturday brunch, the demand for the dish came as soon as the doors opened.
"I didn't expect anyone to order fried chicken at 9 a.m.; our fryers weren't even on," he recalled. "But we caught up quickly."
Lovelace, who opened the Park Road eatery in February with his wife, Irina, is looking to bring a different restaurant experience to the area. They describe Hearty Kitchen's food as natural and wholesome: no artificial or processed ingredients, local and organic when possible, no unnecessary additives and chemicals. "We don't use shortcuts," Irina said.
The scratch-made fare is a combination of nourishing and indulgent. Country-style buttermilk fried chicken – organic, antibiotic-free and hormone-free – has quickly become the restaurant's signature item, brined first for 12 to 24 hours. It's served in two, four and eight-piece orders ($6.50 to $18.50,) with hand-cut fries and biscuits or alongside Belgian waffles. Justin Lovelace estimates chicken makes up 80 percent of Hearty Kitchen's food sales.
The restaurant's version of a Vietnamese banh mi ($9 to $9.50) is made with seasonal vegetables or house-roasted pork, with pickled carrots, cucumber, cilantro and spicy chili mayonnaise. Hearty Kitchen adds its own touch with fresh avocado, and all the ingredients are loaded onto a specially made crackly baguette by Hartford Baking Company. The Mixto Cubano ($9) is made on pressed local Cuban-style bread, with more slow-roasted pork, ham, Swiss cheese and dill pickles.
More indulgent options include the macaroni and cheese, available as an entrée with rotating daily preparations or as a simple side dish. Recent "mac of the day" concoctions have included chipotle, roasted tomato and bacon and mushrooms. Hearty Kitchen also offers a handful of chalkboard specials by executive chef Rich Jurman, with such recent offerings as chorizo and egg tacos and ramen with hand-rolled noodles and slow-roasted pork belly.
Breakfast is available anytime, Justin Lovelace said, "even if you want it at 7 p.m." The menu is heavy on egg dishes ($4.50 to $10) with an egg and cheese sandwich, eggs any style with homefries and choice of toast, or a build-your-own three-egg omelette with choice of more than a dozen meats, cheeses and vegetables. Freshly baked waffles ($6 for one, $8 for two) are served with blackberry compote, whipped butter and Connecticut maple syrup.
Diners in need of gluten-free options will find plenty here: Hearty Kitchen serves specially prepared fried chicken with Bob's Red Mill gluten-free flour, and gluten-free breads and biscuits from Bridget's Breads of Burlington. The hearty beef stew, with grass-fed beef, mushrooms, root vegetables and greens, is naturally gluten-free, the Lovelaces said – using no flour for thickening. Irina Lovelace is sensitive to gluten, she says, and helps test the recipes for quality assurance.
The couple is from New York, where Justin owned and operated an event production company. Business frequently brought him to the West Hartford area, he said, and he found himself looking for quality restaurants serving good, wholesome food that weren't prohibitively expensive. "We wanted a place where we would feel comfortable bringing our kids to eat," Irina said.
They then found the 500-square-foot space, formerly home to India Oven and Poppy's Italian Kitchen. The restaurant's diminutive size only allows for 21 seats indoors, but there will be room for another 16 on the patio in warm weather. On weekdays, Hearty Kitchen offers counter service, and full-service meals with waitstaff on weekends. BYOB is encouraged, with no corking fee.
The dedication to quality ingredients means some extra research on the owners' part, but it's worth the effort, they say. For example, they serve natural Maine Root sodas, Stevia is offered instead of other artificial sweeteners, and Hearty Kitchen only serves organic, gluten-free ketchup (they're working on a housemade recipe at the moment.) They pay close attention to where their cooking oils come from, exploring non-GMO options for peanut oil and non-conflict palm oil.
"Suppliers are a little more conscientious," Justin Lovelace says. "The industry is responding, but it takes them a long time to catch up. Whatever the consumer wants is what the industry will do."
Despite Hearty Kitchen's commitment to wholesome foods, "we're not health food," Justin said. "I hate labels with a passion. I don't want to make a vegetarian dish; I want to make a vegetable dish. If you're a vegetarian, you'll enjoy it, if you're not a vegetarian, you'll enjoy it."
Hearty Kitchen, 280 Park Road in West Hartford, is open Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m; Saturday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.; and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Closed Monday. Information: 860-756-0454 and heartykitchenct.com.