A glamorous aerie high in the sky with heavenly food! It’s hard to think of a more perfect place to ring in the holidays.
The room is so handsome, the views so breathtaking and the food so stunningly delicious, dining at ON20 is an almost dreamlike experience—which is as it should be because the mechanics shouldn’t show, and one difference between a home cook and a professional chef is that the pro makes it look easy.
ON20’s chef, Noel Jones, is a chef’s chef, world-class. He wasn’t an instant media sensation, though the press tried to make him one when he first arrived, calling him a wizard of what was then the coolest new cool, “molecular cuisine.” Chef Jones politely declined the designation. Sure, he has a high-tech kitchen at his command, but his well-thumbed Escoffier takes pride of place there. Sure, he foams and gels, crystallizes and emulsifies, but only to add or intensify flavor. How food tastes—the subtleties of which take years to master—is what it’s all about. Knife skills, for example, are taught in cooking school, but the virtuosic skills of a professional chef, who automatically chooses and uses the right knife in the right way, often with lightning-like alacrity—come only with practice, practice and more practice.
Noel Jones graduated at the head of his class in culinary school in Ireland. Since then he has scaled, eviscerated and filleted thousands of fish, deboned hundreds of quail. Fads may come and go, but this chef has mastered his art so thoroughly he can pretty much do anything. One of his earliest Hartford performances (a press luncheon) was a virtual Cirque du Soleil of complex dishes, showy constructions and exotic ingredients. The menu he prepared for a James Beard House dinner in his honor last August began with locally grown heirloom tomatoes—red, yellow, green, purple in all their native glory—blessed only with 25-year balsamic, followed by a farm-fresh “one-hour” poached egg in truffle-infused beet sauce.
What’s he up to now? We can’t wait to find out. We snag a reservation, take the elevator to the 20th floor, settle in—and are dazzled anew. Service is unobtrusively correct, the menu reassuringly direct. This is serious gastronomy. But the chef is not above having fun with it. Take “Fried Oysters,” for example. Crispy, crunchy, tasting of the sea, they are actually oyster mushrooms battered with seaweed and served with a tarragon-scented remoulade. I love them. I also love the fact that the amuse bouche is amusing—three dabs of mystery that turn out to be herbed almond financière with foie gras, a walnut-size ball of apple with sweet potato purée, and ruby-red, crystal-clear beet-and-elderberry gelée topped with candied orange peel.
Butternut squash bisque has become ubiquitous in Connecticut this year but ON20’s version is at once soothing and exciting, harboring the tiniest dice of Bartlett pear, crispy Bayonne ham and a hint of lovage.
I order quail because the menu promises it will be boneless and indeed it is—generous pinwheels of tender meat, each with a center of foie gras, sauced with Armagnac and garnished with peeled, pickled Concord grapes. Sometimes genius is going to the trouble.
Braised octopus, exceptionally sweet and tender, is served simply—with roasted potatoes, marinated tomatoes and saffron rouille. My favorite appetizer, wild mushroom ragout with goat cheese and a Pedro Ximinez sherry reduction, sails in on a piping-hot slab of what looks like slate.
At ON20, presentation is more than just a pretty face. Everything on every plate contributes something. Diced pear adds a touch of sweetness to butternut squash bisque. Fried Parmesan, lacy and crisp as a starched doily, offsets the creaminess of polenta pappardelle and braised rabbit ragout. Maine scallops perk up when paired with currants, toasted pine nuts and orange glace de veau.
Noel Jones is a perfectionist when it comes to texture. Tender, rose-tinged, perfectly medium-rare slices of Painted Hills sirloin of beef fan out next to cracklingly crisp flash-fried snow peas julienne. A hoop-shaped, house-made potato chip on a base of creamy five-spice flavored potato purée completes the interplay. Each main-course plate is a carefully thought-out composition with many complementary components.
The menu wisely avoids excess verbiage, content to list the primary ingredient of each main course—sirloin, pappardelle, halibut—and a few descriptive details. Confusion occasionally results. It helps to know that when it comes to culinary terms, chef Jones sticks to classic French. So daurade is what it is in France, gilthead sea bream—not dorado or mahi mahi. At ON20 it’s served with a farce, or stuffing, of shrimp and Castelvetrano olives along with caramelized-parsnip purée and three baby artichokes all in a row, like chickadees on a telephone wire. Who says classic French can’t be whimsically delicious?
It’s rare to taste as many dishes as we have without encountering a few that lack luster. But our meal is flawless, including dessert. In this category, tiny, terrific and intense is the golden rule. For example, a “Trio of Chocolate” includes a small luscious bite of flourless torte topped with sous vide cooked banana, a mini chocolate gateau and a doll-sized dab of Valhrona bittersweet chocolate ice cream: chocolate to the nth degree. Of course, if you’re a three-scoop-hot-fudge-sundae-with-
whipped-cream addict, you’d have to order five ON20 trios to get your fix—but this is not that kind of place. And at this point we don’t need a morsel more, but the morsels on offer are too marvelous to resist.
A deconstructed Key lime pie comes with coconut sorbet. Pistachio cake, airy and not too sweet, is crowned with Amerino cherries. Cinnamon-raisin apple cake is layered with apple compote and topped with Calvados sabayon. All are refreshing new versions of old favorites—and we fall in love with them all over again.
Haute cuisine on high, perfection on the 20th floor. If you’re thinking it must cost a fortune, hear this: Starters are $8 to $12, main courses are $25 to $29 and desserts are $9. Happy holidays! And my compliments to the chef.
One State St., Hartford
Lunch Monday through Friday 12 to 2, dinner Wednesday and Friday 6 to 9. Tasting menu by appointment. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range (dinner): appetizers $8 to $12, entrées $25 to $29, desserts $9.