To the avid diner, West Hartford Center poses a tempting riddle: How many restaurants can fit in one three-block area before that area explodes? You look down LaSalle or Farmington Avenue and ask, is it finally full? And every season the answer is, Not yet!
“Oh, there’s definitely room for more,” says Camilo Zerrate, one of the partners in Harvest Wine Bar, which opened this past spring. Harvest is the newest in a group of restaurants started by the Fairfield County-based Siguenza family. Three siblings — Kleber, Vicente and Nuba — started in 2004, and six restaurants later they’ve landed here in the 860, adding a northern outpost to their collection of wine bars scattered across the southern part of the state. Harvest uses a casual, modern setting to anchor a Mediterranean-inspired cuisine, with some eclectic borrowings from elsewhere, in a broad array of complementary wines.
The restaurant’s vibe is sleek and elemental. You’re surrounded by wood and earth tones, stone and glass, extensive bottle displays and coolly unornamented walls. A convivial bar scene, not too loud, feels like a cocktail party you would eagerly attend. The entire front of the dining room opens to the street, with two rows of tables behind a fence; wait staff exit the restaurant and serve you over the fence, in neighborly fashion, from the sidewalk. All in all, the scene is mellow, stylish and relaxing.
Harvest’s menu, designed by chefs Nuba Siguenza and Gus Christman, follows familiar steak-seafood-pasta contours, but distinguishes itself by confident execution and the quietly innovative touch. Grilled calamari is served with sliced rounds of jalapeño atop a big, vividly green pool of emulsified avocado and sour cream. (A deep-fried, “crispy” version substitutes a lemon aïoli and sweet-spicy honey sambal relish.) A starter billed as “lamb lollipops” turned out to be two grilled rib chops, nestled into a mound of arugula and cherry tomatoes alongside a colorful yin-and-yang swirl of roasted red pepper purée and yogurt.
And a novel salad, consisting of finely shaved brussels sprouts compacted into a perfect ball, then perched atop a risotto cake with parmesan wafers on top and a truffle-accented vinaigrette, was a small triumph of form and taste. It’s the restaurant’s most popular offering, Zerrate says. “There’s a fun geometry to it. People will come in and have just this salad and a glass of wine.”
Most dishes, and especially the small-plate starters, notched in well above routine in terms of freshness, color and composition. Crab cakes — ample, minimally breaded, and fall-apart tender — benefited from a pineapple mango slaw and a sweet, creamy-but-punchy chipotle aïoli. An excellent Bibb salad combined strawberries and blueberries with candied spiced walnuts and Maytag blue. An opulent mac and cheese presented a lavishly buttery and creamy melange of cheddar and cavatelli and lobster, that thickened deliciously as it cooled.
While the decor of the restaurant is minimalist, the presentations on your plate tend toward maximalism, with potpourris of colors and flavors. The Harvest menu is Italian-accented, and the maxi approach showcases Italian cooking’s emphasis on ingredients, in contrast to process-oriented cuisines like French.
But do all these elements meld together, or make you want to separate them out? The answer varied from dish to dish. An entree of chicken scarpariello (“shoemaker style” in Italian, believed to trace to a dish that Neapolitan cobblers would throw together at the end of a busy day), dressed a roasted half chicken with chorizo, spinach, piquillo and cherry peppers, and indecently good cheesified mashed potatoes — an assemblage of piquant, even rowdy tastes.
But the jury was out on an entree of seared yellowfin tuna, its slices fanned out on the plate amid a profusion of corn, fava beans, green beans, quartered baby tomatoes, radishes, a mango pineapple cabbage red pepper slaw and a chipotle aïoli. And a starter of octopus had a frankly confusing presentation — cut into unduly small bits that were all but lost in an busy arrangement of peppers, tomatoes and guacamole, and a white bean puree.
Other entrees were simpler, like hanger steak, sliced and laid atop sauteed spinach, with a cup of chimichurri dipping sauce. A highly satisfying burger adorned a large patty of grass-fed beef with deep-fried onion strings, thick sliced cheddar, bacon and a smoked tomato aioli.
Seafood linguini surprised through its absence of cream, just a light touch of brandy gracing a mix of lobster, shrimp, and the tiniest pearl-like scallops I’ve ever seen; with peas and grape tomatoes, chunks of garlic, and a hefty dose of lemon, it was fresh, simple and good.
Other efforts fell short. Ricotta gnocchi were submerged in a big bowl of extremely meaty, overly sweet Bolognese; traditional potato gnocchi might be preferable, as the ricotta started out gummy and soon melted into a semi-liquid state, the resulting melange proving so rich that you had to quit halfway through.
A bowl of pappardelle with shredded chicken and button mushrooms needed something green. A side of grilled asparagus ordered with another entree was inedibly salty.
Desserts included a finely wrought chocolate lava cake, and a trio of miniature profiteroles. Looking like dessert sliders, they dotted a plate swirled with raspberry coulis, vanilla gelato, and strawberries, and were ornamented with a giant wafer in a fleur de lis shape, as if from a medieval coat of arms. A stylish way to end a stylish meal.
64 LaSalle Road * West Hartford * 860-519-5176 * harvestwinebar.com/west-hartford
3 ½ stars
THE SPACE — Seating for 80 in a sleekly minimalist room, fitted out with attractive bottle displays, that opens to the sidewalk for seasonal outdoor patio dining.
THE CROWD — The usual West Hartford array of dedicated and enthusiastic diners.
THE BAR — Seating for 17 at a massive oak bar nicely integrated into the restaurant space. Happy Hour, weekdays from 4 to 6 p.m., features discounted wine, beer and cocktails, and appetizers from $2 to $8. A big wine list showcases California and Italy, with 30 wines by the glass, from $9 to $15, and 90 bottles, from $36 to $185.
THE BILL — Appetizers, soups and salads, $8 to $14; main courses, $18 to $35; side dishes, $4 to $7; desserts $9.
WHAT WE LIKED — Grilled calamari, lamb “lollipops,” Bibb salad, crab cakes, lobster mac and cheese, chicken scarpariello, hanger steak with fries, seafood linguini, chocolate lava cake, profiteroles.
NOISE LEVEL — Bustling and enthusiastic, but by no means overwhelming.
IF YOU GO — Lunch: Daily, 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Dinner: Tuesday through Thursday, 4 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 4 to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 4 to 9 p.m. Reservations recommended on weekend nights. Wheelchair access through front door. Metered parking on street and in city lots.