★★1/2 (Very Good-Superior)
One triumph in the reclamation of downtown Hartford is the creation of a restaurant called Dish on the ground floor of what used to be the Sage-Allen department store. It's a knockout. The antique sidewalk clock, still standing where it always stood, seeing all, must be amazed. Where mothers and daughters in white gloves once shopped for frilly dresses and hats with veils, a hip crowd now sips rainbow-hued margaritas, nibbles tuna tartare and watches UConn women's basketball on a plasma screen above the bar.
The decor, more spaceship than watering hole, is uncompromisingly cutting-edge. Ceilings soar, ducts and pipes painted dark gray fade away, and all manner of architectural playfulness involving industrial materials goes on below. Shiny metal chains form a canopy over a counter. The luminous columns of a room divider are, upon closer inspection, tall stacks of small glass plates. Dishes-get it? But the effect is stylish, not cute. So is the food.
The menu, brisk and to the point, names each dish and lists its ingredients. We thought we understood it but sometimes we did not. For example, I ordered a chopped vegetable salad because the second ingredient listed was a soft-boiled egg. I pictured my fork pricking the quiveringly soft egg and letting the molten yolk spill a golden sauce over warm vegetables. What arrived was a pile of raw vegetables accompanied by an ice-cold egg so hard-boiled it was hard to cut with a fork. I pled my plight and the waitress exchanged the disappointing appetizer for the best crab cake I've had in years.
But we missed a real treat by not ordering lobster potpie. We had no way of knowing it was not the usual minced lobster in thick cream sauce in a pie crust. Too late we saw an order being served at the next table, a beautiful composition consisting of cooked lobster, whole tail, whole claw, winter vegetables and light cream sauce topped with a wafer of flaky pastry.
Ah, what might have been. But almost everything we did order exceeded expectations. That crab cake, for instance, was made with juicy shards of blue claw crab, subtly seasoned, with little or no filler. A dollop of chopped sweet pickle was a surprisingly effective accent note.
"Surf and turf dumplings" were delectable: Six tender, crisp-edged little packages, three filled with lobster, three with shredded beef tenderloin, came to the table piping hot along with two dipping sauces-aioli and barbecue.
A tartare tasting was great fun and demonstrated that the whole can exceed its component parts. "Spicy tuna tartare"-not as spicy nor as complex as some I have enjoyed-played well with finely ground raw Angus beef and the best diced tomatoes I've tasted since summer. (Hydroponic? Dish makes much of the fact that they buy local.)
Appetizers, entrées and desserts were served in portions that struck me as just right. Enough but not too much. Accordingly, one could leave the table satisfied but not stuffed. Unless, of course, one ordered the 42-ounce porterhouse for two with peppercorn cream sauce and Brooklyn-style hash browns. Excess is always a possibility.
But so is the bliss of a wildly flavorful, reasonably sized portion of slow-cooked short ribs swimming in rich, intensely flavorful pan juices. Served with a medley of baby carrots, pattypan squash and fingerling potatoes, it left nothing to be desired.
Nor did the rack of lamb, exceptionally lean, fine-grained and tender, tasting definitively like lamb. A portion of shepherd's pie was served alongside, amazing because the juicy filling of ground lamb, potatoes and vegetables was piled on a pastry bottom crust as flaky and light as any top crust could hope to be.
A similar miracle manifested itself in salmon Wellington. And we're not talking sheets of phyllo. Somebody in the kitchen is able even to brown the tender, buttery top crust a little without overcooking the salmon inside. We loved this dish. With black truffle, shallots and hollandaise, how could we not? Pinot Noir reduction was listed among the ingredients but in the form of an artistic dribble on the plate, it didn't add much.
The fish we ordered was listed as Chilean sea bass "T-Bone" for the ridge of cartilage defining the cut. I removed it and enjoyed a thick, juicy slab of sweet-fleshed fish embellished with shiitake mushrooms and aged balsamic reduction.
Desserts were variations on classic themes, but what imaginative variations they were. Chocolate lava cake was served with espresso ice cream and chocolate sorbet. A perfect mascarpone panna cotta was enhanced with vanilla crumble and mandarin sorbet. A honey-roasted pear was served with pear-hazelnut cake and Pear Williams sabayon-a tiny bit of the latter; we would have liked to have had more. Pumpkin cheesecake garnished with a compote of golden raisins and apricots was served with (for my taste) not enough maple cream anglaise.
But there's a whole lot on offer at Dish-raw bar, dessert bar, chophouse fare, snack food, sides, daily specials, a multitude of sauces, prix fixe dessert sampler, an upbeat vibe, an attractive crowd. How to handle it all? There's always tomorrow night.
900 Main St., Hartford (860/249-3474)
Lunch Monday to Friday 11:30 through 3. Light bar menu Monday to Friday 3 through 5. Dinner Monday through Saturday at 5 to closing, Sunday 4 to closing. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: $8 to $13, entrées $18 to $32, desserts $7 to $8.Dish, Hartford