Restaurant Review: À Vert, West Hartford
Beautiful dishes À Vert: escargots in-shell (at top) and duck confit (below).
Full disclosure: I’m crazy about Paris. For many years, when David and I went to Europe we stopped off to visit his college roommate who lived in an elegant apartment near the Eiffel Tower. The 7th Arrondissement has no shortage of fine restaurants and bistros de luxe, but more often than not we would have an apéritif in the apartment before heading off to a lively brasserie or bistro populaire in the Latin Quarter.
I still love French bistros and keep my eye out for new ones in Connecticut. Some are French in name only, but the minute I entered À Vert, a new brasserie in West Hartford, I was in Paris. The zinc bar, the wine list chalked on the mirror. The pressed-tin ceiling, the white tile and exposed-brick walls—authentic, romantic and real, including the warmth and friendliness that define bistro dining in the City of Light.
It’s all good, but food beautiful food is the overriding reason to dine at À Vert. How could it not be? It’s owned by two chefs who in recent years have been making the Connecticut foodie world sit up and take notice: David Borselle at Bar Bouchée in Madison and Dorjan Puka at Treva around the corner in West Hartford.
It’s not easy to break away from the pack when you’re cooking Italian or French. Doesn’t the genre define and confine? Well, yes. But competence can be dazzling, especially when it’s combined with imagination, perfectionism and zest as it is at À Vert, where it comes with an open invitation to relax, lean in and let the good times roll. We snagged a corner banquette and did just that.
We started with duck confit, which I ordered because I’ve been having trouble finding a good version of this classic bistro dish elsewhere. À Vert’s duck confit was luscious. Stripped from the bone in tender, moist, deep-flavored shards and arranged in a neat mound, it was served with a tangy green-apple-and-frisée salad and French green lentils, as tiny and festive as confetti.
We ordered escargots, which the menu said would be “in-shell.” That’s getting to be a bit rare these days when canned snails, packaged shells and ovenproof snail plates invite shortcuts. Does it matter whether escargots are cooked in or out of the shell? Yes, because they have a subtle flavor as distinct in its way as mussels or lobster. Poaching them in their own shells keeps the flavor in. At À Vert the escargot arrived tucked tightly in their shells (you’ll need that little oyster fork to dig them out) and tasted the way nature made them, which to the neophyte might be a bit strange because they were not inundated, as they often are, with garlic and Pernod. Escargot afficionados will love them. I did.
As for that bistro favorite, soupe à l’oignon, even if you went to Paris you might not find a better one. The intensity of the broth is enough to make you close your eyes and sigh.
At this point a plate of light-as-a-cloud pike quenelle arrived. To our surprise our waitress volunteered to tell us in detail how it was made: The chef makes a mousse of raw fillets of pike, passes it through a sieve to remove tiny bones, forms it by hand (“with two spoons”), poaches it, then plunges it into an ice bath for exactly three minutes. It arrives warm in warm lobster sauce.
Talk about labor-intensive—and an informed staff. As for the quenelle, celestial is the word. It’s no wonder that, according to legend, Jacqueline Kennedy habitually ordered pike quenelle when she lunched at the likes of La Grenouille in Manhattan.
At a French restaurant, I like to order things I might not cook at home—dishes that like À Vert’s quenelles, call for rounding up a lot of hard-to-find ingredients, and dishes like short ribs that take forever to make. Short ribs frequently get short shrift in busy kitchens, which depend on brown gravy to save the day. À Vert’s beef short ribs braised in red wine were infused with flavor through and through. Literally fork-tender, almost buttery, they made me wonder how long they’d been cooked. The question nagged and a week or so later I called David Borselle and asked him. “Well, we marinate them for at least 24 hours,” he said, then lost me in a daunting list of ingredients, techniques and steps in the braising process.
Bottom line: Minimum cooking time is three hours. “Almost nobody does it but that’s the way it should be done,” Borselle says. As a youth (he’s 30 now), chef Borselle attended a tough-as-boot-camp culinary school in Italy. He could probably cook the classics with his eyes shut—and much of what he does is so traditional it seems new. For example, coq au vin made with braised chicken legs instead of au courant boneless chicken breast. A few calories more and a thousand times tastier.
Trout Grenobloise, perfectly pan-roasted, was topped with capers, croutons and brown-butter lemon sauce. Skate, a lovely fish but challenging to prepare, was also perfectly rendered. Embellished with fennel black olive sauce, it was a welcome change from same old tilapia and sea bass.
The desserts we liked best were at once homey and festive: white chocolate bread pudding with crème Anglaise, ice cream profiteroles with caramelized almonds and chocolate sauce, pistachio ice cream with roasted pistachios and caramel sauce.
Paris has a bistro history that goes back to the ancient canteens for the workers at Les Halles. Over the years, as chefs, owners and habitués left their mark on this most malleable style of eatery, each bistro acquired its own ambience, special dishes, traditions and clientele. When these differences coalesced, informal categories with elastic boundaries entered the lingua franca: Bistros classique, bistros de luxe, neo bistros, bistros regional. À Vert will give you a taste of them all. Bon appétit.
À Vert Brasserie
35 LaSalle Rd., West Hartford, (860) 904-6240, avertbrasserie.com
Open Monday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:30 to 11, Sunday 10 to 9. Major credit cards. Wheelchair access. Price range: appetizers $6 to $14, entrées $15 to $29, desserts $6 to $8.
Restaurant Review: À Vert, West Hartford