“The discovery of a new dish does more for human happiness than the discovery of a star.”
~ Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
Dante Alighieri’s 14th century poem Divine Comedy postulated the existence of nine circles of Hell, each circle appropriate to the sins of the damned. The fourth circle, for example, is reserved for hoarders and wasters whose punishment is to spend eternal life rolling giant boulders at one another. While gastronomy is a virtue and not a sin, were there to have been a circle in Hell for gastronomes, there’s no doubt it would have been to spend eternity eating in chain restaurants where we would be subjected to the tedium and monotony of forevermore eating homogeneous foods. It would certainly make prophetic my words “I’ll be damned if I ever eat at Chili’s or Applebee’s.”
Gastronomes need the spice of life that is variety. Unlike gluttons who eat and drink excessively or voraciously, (and therefore spend eternal life in the fourth circle of Hell where they wallow in muck and mire) gastronomes need not consume food in large quantities. Instead, we (and I’m including the faithful readers of this blog here) need the diversity that comes from foods with varying food profiles. We need restaurants like Hartford Square.
Fittingly Hartford Square’s motto is “variety is the spice of life” and it’s not a motto that graces the menu and its Web site solely for the sake of pandering to an adventurous demographic. It’s the restaurant’s modus operandi. Hartford Square changes its menu every week, based on what is abundant and available. For gastronomes whose favorite dish is the next new adventure in deliciousness, it’s a formula that works. We like being surprised and rather than fretting the absence of a favorite dish, we celebrate the new dish which took its place. Visiting Hartford Square is almost like visiting a new restaurant every week.
The menu is simple and short. It’s the antithesis of the compendium menus which promise all things to all diners and fall woefully short. The only aspect of the menu that’s even remotely formulaic is that you’ll always find outstanding pastries, soups, salads and main course dishes. Hartford Square embraces farm-to-table concepts; most of its food is local (often organic), seasonal and healthy. Local sources–Kyzer Farms, Michael Thomas Coffee, Chispas Farms, Old Windmill Dairy and more–are exemplars of quality, freshness and social consciousness.
Hartford Square is ensconced in a 1,200 square-foot ground-floor storefront at the Belvedere Urban Courtyard condos to the immediate north of the old Albuquerque High. The restaurant is wider than it is deep with the exhibition kitchen occupying more than half of the space. To maximize seating, a bar-like counter with stools provides the best views in the house, allowing guests to watch the assiduous staff preparing various dishes in small batches throughout the day. If great fortune is smiling on you, that might mean warm scones just out-of-the-oven.
Hartford Square is named for founder-owner Sarah Hartford, a New Mexico resident for two decades but with roots in New England. On any given visit, you might see East Coast influences throughout her menu. You will see a distinctive menu unlike that of any other restaurant in Albuquerque. That might even mean no red or green chile on any dish–even on burritos. This is a vive la difference approach gastronomes, much as we love our red and green, have embraced.
The first thing your eyes will probably fixate upon when you walk into Hartford Square is a glass case showcasing pastries and main dishes. Then if your eyes need confirmation as to what they’re ogling, menus are scrawled overhead, describing each dish. Atop the gleaming steel counter where you order as well as on top of the pastry case, you’ll espy covered pastry plates so tempting they may evoke wanton lust (and if you don’t curb that lust, maybe a future trip to the second circle of Dante’s Hell). Pastry chef Acacia Prechtel is the talented creator of the restaurant’s artisinal pastries, all so good you might be prompted to propose marriage to her if not to one of those pumpkin donuts.
The house coffee is sourced from Michael Thomas Coffee Roasters on Carlisle. It’s a very highly regarded coffee which author Andrea Feucht lauded in an article for London’s The Guardian. Not being quite the coffee connoisseur Andrea is, to me the coffee didn’t have the smoothness and richness of my favorite coffees at Cafe Bella. Ironically, it was a glowing recommendation from Cafe Bella’s affable proprietor Michael Gonzales which prompted my inaugural visit to Hartford Square. Where the coffee did is job superbly is as a wonderful complement to the best pumpkin donuts we’ve had anywhere. The coffee and the donuts brought out flavor notes in one another we didn’t discern on their own.
Having lived for two years in a Boston suburb, it made sense for old-times-sake that I’d try the Boston Baked Beans (simmered all day in molasses, mustard, cider vinegar, bacon and salt pork) and Piccalilli relish which somewhat countermands the sweetness of the beans. Despite the city’s “Beantown” sobriquet, not all Bostonians like Boston Baked Beans which are often almost as sweet as the candy-coated peanuts which share their name. Hartford Square’s rendition is among the very best I’ve had anywhere even without the housemade Piccalilli relish made from pickled vegetables and spices. This is a relish so good it should be bottled and sold.
When you order Macaroni & Cheese you don’t always know what you’re going to get. Sometimes the dish is creamy and moist. At other times, it’s got a good cheesy caramelization and crust. The latter is how our macaroni & cheese was served. Frankly it’s the way we like it because it generally means you get a stronger cheese flavor, one not diluted by cream or milk. If we wanted runny mac & cheese, we’d open up a box of Kraft dinner (because Kraft dinner will never cross my lips, that’s a lie that will land me in the eighth circle of Hell.)
If you’re a fan of fleshy fungi, you’ll love Hartford Square’s stuffed mushrooms, individually priced mushroom caps stuffed generously with locally sourced Italian sausage. The wonderful contrast between moist, woodsy mushrooms and nicely seasoned, tangy sausage is memorable. To keep peace in the family you’ll want to order at least two each for every diner at your table.
Without having paused to photograph the chicken pot pie, we might not have noticed the six-petaled flowery display on the pie’s top crust. That’s how eager we were to confirm that it tasted as good as it smelled and looked. Puncture that crust with your fork and fragrant steam escapes, a portend to deliciousness. The chicken pot pie is moist and unctuous, a panoply of smaller than bite sized pieces of tender chicken and fresh vegetables (carrots, potatoes, celery).
We’ve had scones all over England as well as in New England and have uncovered scones in the Land of Enchantment that are competitive with the best. Hartford Square’s lemon poppy seed scones are right up there with the scones at Sugar Nymph’s in Peñasco and at Albuquerque’s Daily Grind. That’s rarefied company. What makes these scones so wonderful is their feather-light texture and the fact that they’re not overly sweet. Best, we got them right out-of-the-oven when they were warm and delectable.
A commonality among the pastries (aside from their deliciousness) at Hartford Square is that none are overly sweet. They’re all imbued with natural flavors. On the cinnamon-apple streusel coffeecake, it’s a pleasure to see real apples sliced into small cubes and not a surfeit of pectin from a box. While pectin is a naturally occurring thickener, its gelatinous qualities can be off-putting when pectic is used to excess. The streusel is moist and delicious, as good as any we’ve had in Albuquerque.
If Dante Alighieri can posit nine levels of Hell with each circle appropriate to the sins of the damned, surely there are at least nine levels of Heaven. Gastronomes will be in one of them. So will Hartford Square.
218 Gold, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 18 January 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Pumpkin Donuts, Lemon Poppyseed Scones, Cinnamon-Apple Streusel Coffeecake, Boston Baked Beans with Piccalilli Relish; Macaroni & Cheese; Stuffed Mushrooms; Chicken Pot Pie