★★ (Very Good)
It’s beginning to look as if old restaurants (some of our favorites, anyway) never die, they just reinvent themselves and reopen with new owners and a fresh vision and energy that are hard to resist.
Take Salute in downtown Hartford, for example, its nexus the demise of Hot Tomato’s, its ownership, management and staff an A-team of that restaurant’s alumni and talented local professionals: co-owners Jimmy Cosgrove, who managed Hot Tomato’s in the ’90s; Andy Rizzo, of Joey Garlic restaurant group fame; and Dave Caudill, Hot Tomato’s chef for seven years. Key players like maître d’ Dale (“Daleo”) Kirshnitz are also on board. In short, the gang’s all here.
On a Friday night when we manage to slip in with the crowd, half of Hartford appears to be here, also. It’s easy to hide, given that the premises, a sleek redo of Dulce on Trumbull Street, consist of a series of small rooms opening onto one another, with nooks and alcoves that provide a bit of privacy without making you feel left out.
The noise level is sky-high, especially in the bar. But hey, isn’t that part of what makes it feel like a party? A classy party, the decor suggests—in Tuscany, perhaps, with a grapevine motif and a lot of stone and wood. The lighting is pleasing and our waitress is bright, peppy, new but well- informed. To her credit, when she doesn’t know something she runs to the kitchen to find out—and comes back promptly. As we all know, that’s not always the case.
The menu is smart and au courant. Starters, gently priced, are generous and roam the civilized world for inspiration, from Italian bruschetta tricolore—with broccoli rabe, chicken, roasted tomato sauce and melted provolone on toasted bread topped with tomato tapenade—to photogenic Asian tuna tempura maki rolls wrapped in nori, lightly fried and served with ponzu sauce, spicy mayo and strips of addictive pickled ginger.
For diehard traditionalists there’s a golden oldie of a shrimp cocktail with horseradish sauce—fun for a change. But the appetizer I like best, the one I’d return for any day, is the house-made ravioli with sweet-potato filling. Blanketed with a velvety cream sauce scented with sage, it’s love at first bite.
We order strawberry salad with some hesitation because it is sometimes too sweet. But Salute’s version is not. What we get is a sprightly tangle of fresh arugula leaves, with tart, thinly sliced unsugared berries and tangy goat cheese. Toasted walnuts add a touch of crunch.
Pastas? Galore, including gluten-free. We luck out with giobatto, a robust stew in a spicy broth ladled over tender fettucine noodles. Stews can be sludgy—but not this one. Each ingredient holds its own—and there are a lot of ingredients: chicken, sausage, veal, fennel, red peppers, yellow peppers, mushrooms. It’s abundance Italian-style, marvelous if you’re ravenous, mouthwatering even if you’re not.
Entrées, too, tend to fill the plate, and except for a surf and turf of filet mignon and lobster, they’re priced in the low 20s. Winners include a 10-ounce pork tenderloin that touches all the trendy bases. Cider demi glace? Check. Caramelized sweet potatoes? Check. Green beans with shallot butter and bacon? Check. Trendy is easy to poke fun at, but it has much to recommend it when the idea, ingredients and preparation come together as felicitously as they do here.
On the other hand, authenticity is what’s wanted when old favorites are involved. Salute obliges with a well-made classic version of chicken Parmesan—crisply breaded, baked rather than sautéed, and served over linguine with house-made mozzarella and good old marinara sauce.
Innovative or tried-and-true, at Salute it’s a matter of choice.
Short ribs, however, try to be both. In a luscious sauce and tender enough to fall off the bone, they are served off the bone, So far, so traditional. But a trendy presentation—serving the ribs atop a mountain of mashed potatoes flavored with goat cheese—plays the dish false. The flavors clash, potatoes soak up almost every smidgen of sauce, and with every one of our attempts to cut the short ribs, they sink deeper into the mush. A mundane mix of carrots and peas, albeit “petite” peas, does little to redeem the dish.
We sample the desserts and find them sumptuous. But the dessert list is unbalanced. Too many sweet, creamy creations. Tiramisu, white chocolate mousse, gelato, pumpkin crème brûlée. The tiramisu is lovely, the crème brûlée changes flavor with the seasons and the white chocolate mousse is silky. But we long for crunch and tang. A cookie-crusted fresh lemon tart, perhaps. Or if strawberries are available for salad, why not serve them au naturel, perhaps with a splash of balsamic vinegar as they’re sometimes served in Italy? But we are in Hartford and the chocolate lava cake is sensuously intense and outrageously delicious enough to melt the hardest heart.
And lest we forget: At Salute you can still get Hot Tomato’s perennially “soon-to-be-famous” garlic cheese bread, the ooey-gooeyest, stringiest melted-mozzarella-hearted breadstuff imaginable. It may be an acquired taste but I love it. Enjoy!
100 Trumbull St., Hartford 860/899-1350; salutect.com
Open Monday through Wednesday 11:30 to 10, Thursday 11 to 11, Friday and Saturday 11:30 to midnight, Sunday 4 to 10. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $5 to $10, entrées $16 to $36, desserts $7 to $8.