There may be no such thing as a free lunch. But there is such a thing as a discounted lunch. And that is an incredible thing when it's the prix fixe lunch offered at ON20 during this week's 2016 Taste of Hartford. It consists of three courses (starter, entree, dessert) for $30.16 at what we think is the single best restaurant in the Greater Hartford Area, located on the 20th floor of the Hartford Steam Boiler building. Even with a limited menu, Chef Jeffrey Lizotte has continued exactly where his predecessor/mentor left off - serving dishes that are as delicious as they are gorgeously plated, cooking seasonal ingredients with modern techniques and, always, taking our breath away. Every single time.
The newly renovated space exudes intimate elegance, from the slate blue and gold carpet to the dark grey ceiling tiles. Crystal sconces and chandeliers provide understated lighting which is barely needed as the wall of windows gives plenty of sunlight and a gorgeous view of the Connecticut river, city of Hartford, and the hills beyond. A platinum Greek key design and iridescent blue drapes play up the two-toned blue-gray chairs which possess a quirky detail on the back - a silver handle. Perfect for Michael, the restaurant's maitre d', a consummate gentleman whose bonhomie is part of what brings us back time and time again, to pull out the chair for a lady.
Today we started with the duck confit which was served with a black cherry tomato gastrique and tagaiassca olive shortbread. The confit was well-seasoned and tender, but one can't help but wonder how Chef got so much flavor into that gastrique, which was delightfully dark and rich. The other starter we chose was the agnolotti, perfect pasta pillows served with buttermilk braised sweet corn that seemed to have been roasted first, and a milky garden herb nage (stock).
For entrees, we chose the broiled porgy, one of the better-eating local fish found in the Sound. This was served with lobster confit, avocado, snap peas and marinated tomato panzanella - or what we thought were perfectly cooked bread-pudding croutons. We could have eaten a whole plate of just those. Our second choice was the honey lavender glazed duck breast with a black mission fig and pickled onion tartine, with a sauce soubise, or bechamel sauce flavored with onion puree. Here was the one misstep in the entire meal, as the fat on the duck was not as fully rendered as it should have been, which made for a few chewy bites. However, the flavor was outstanding.
For dessert, the banana "split" - three scoops of ice cream (Neapolitan, naturally), with caramel, hot fudge, roasted cherry and candied walnuts topped with a dollop of freshly whipped cream - truly hit the summer spot. The chocolate araguani (Valrhona's 72% bittersweet chocolate made from rare Venezuelan cocoa beans) tart was deep and velvety smooth, as well as luxuriously garnished with flakes of gold leaf. That was served in perfect balance with a refreshing lemon verbena sorbet that we are intent upon trying to recreate at home, since we have lemon verbena in the garden. (Chef Lizotte, if you are reading this, feel free to send me that recipe).
The Taste of Hartford offers a lot of choices. In the past we've experienced some ups (incredible steaks at The Capital Grille), and some downs (churned-out chicken at the well-known upscale small local chain that we won't name here). While a typical meal at ON20 can be beyond the reach of many pockets, there is no reason not to splurge this week, when, for the experience as a whole, it must be the best deal in town.