Hartford-bound? Me neither — at least, I wasn’t until I heard about Tyler Anderson’s new, or shall we say newly styled restaurant, Terreno, on the first floor of Hartford’s Goodwin hotel. Located in an 1891 building on a sunny corner site, the handsome, boutique Goodwin has really impressed the couple of times I’ve visited.
I liked Porrón, too, chef Anderson’s Spanish restaurant, which sat alongside The Goodwin’s lively bar, Piña. Porrón closed one Friday in February to the disappointment of locals, who know their generic jamón (dry-cured Iberian ham) from their a corn-fed Ibérico (a variety of Iberian ham). But, with apologies to Julie Andrews, if ever there was a case of God closing a door and opening a window, it was here. Because, hey presto — the restaurant reopened just three days later, as Terreno amd Ibérico was swapped out for prosciutto, while Bar Piña remained unchanged and was still packing in the crowds.
Sleight of hand? Smoke and mirrors? Not really. Anderson, a Californian with a clutch of restaurant awards to his name (Best Chef Northeast from the James Beard Foundation for the past seven years among them) and impeccable New England connections — to say nothing of a wife with a Sicilian heritage — has a knack of drawing various strands of his life together to create extraordinary food.
At Terreno, the menu reads a little like a 1980s Cali-Ital throwback, which is all to the good, since that cuisine, inchoate 40 years ago, had a verve about it that sprang from newness and enthusiasm. But it was also substantial, unlike the cuisines of “nouvelle” and “minceur,” which were to follow (and don’t even get me started on the Kale-Ital years).
So, let’s start at the very beginning, to continue “The Sound of Music” theme, with a wonderful appetizer of meatballs. They are not your average meatballs, these pork and veal beauties, but studded with currants and pine nuts in a subtle agro dolce, the whole dish laced with creamy stracciatella. Another appetizer, a spin on ubiquitous tuna crudo, creates an umami-rich dish, spiked with a brown butter soy and prinked with bitter radishes.
If a rather joyless kale caesar, dropped a little lazily into the salad section, fails to excite, recovery comes quickly with Sicilian-style pizzette, baby pizzas that get the all-important relationship between a thin, crisp base and a cohesive topping just right. The tartufo, with ricotta and black truffle, is an indulgent couple of bites, while the Genovese, with braised beef, olives and raclette, is a celebration of the land, a successful three-way marriage of meat, fruit and dairy.
Pastas, “all fresh and made here” as the menu boasts, have a little way to go. Gnocchi replaces the more usual penne as the pasta (or here, the potato) to be paired with a vodka-infused tomato sauce. While I get the slightly strained relationship between the spud and the vodka, this was a rather plodding dish. Butternut squash agnolotti, with brown butter and smoked chestnut, felt a little heavy, too, the agnolotti themselves lacking the essential lightness that lifts this pasta from an earnest parcel to a heavenly bite.
We fared better in the mains. A perfectly cooked roast chicken — yielding breast, crisp skin — received added zing from a vibrant salsa verde. Served with creamy white beans and punctuated with a glossy olive tapenade, the swordfish piccata was likewise a winner. And while these more genuine-seeming Italian entrées are augmented by half a dozen burgers and steaks, which sound a distinctly less Italian note, there’s no arguing with an affogato for dessert. This simplest of Italian dolci, soot black espresso poured over virgin white vanilla ice cream, has me there on Piazza San Marco every time.
With it elegant interior, comfortable, leather-upholstered modern Empire chairs and thoroughly Terreno has made flip from Spanish to Italian, obliging service, although I will sound a note of caution.
I remember, years ago, embarking on a Spanish course in Madrid and finding half the class was Italian. I was surprised. We useless-at-languages, native English speakers tend to think that if you can speak one of those dulcety-sounding Romance languages, you can speak them all. Not so.
The same goes for food. Just because you can cook one European cuisine, it doesn’t mean you can instantly cook another, which is not to say there is no common ground.
But the art of Italian cucina is not something simply learned from a book, although a book (especially one by Marcella Hazan or Anna del Conte) is a perfectly good place to start. It is something to be built up, practiced and nurtured, a ray of golden sun always added, along with the rosemary and oregano, to any dish. That is why I feel Terreno still has a little way to go, though I’ve no doubt it will get there with time — no herbal pun intended.
For more, visit terrenorestaurant.com.