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Civic Cafe – Hartford

I have wanted to start my own restaurant for years, and in late 1997, I started to develop my cooking skills and modify my recipes for a larger audience. When I finally broke through the mental barrier and said "you know… I could really pull this off…" I started examining every detail of the restaurants that I would frequent. I would comment on the service and the settings, make notes on the decor and staffing requirements, and would always give my opinion on the layout and physical design of the restaurant. So, when Janet and I were sitting in The Slanted Door Vietnamese Restaurant in San Francisco's Mission/Valencia District and she commented, "Let's guess, nice space… Right?", I knew that I had crossed the line between idle thought about starting my own restaurant and had moved into full-fledged obsession.

So when I go out to eat, I am extremely critical of all aspects of the meal… which can make for exasperating dinner conversation whenever we try a new restaurant for the first time… and Friday night at the The Civic Cafe on Trumbull was no exception.

The Civic Cafe is one of those chi-chi fusion restaurants that have a habit of popping up in the financial areas of every major city. I'll be the first to tell you that I am not enamored with fusion cuisine, but the Civic had a great reputation, and since I had decided to meet Janet by her office (which is a block away from the Civic&#41, I figured that we might as well give it a shot.

Walking into the Civic, I felt like I had just walked through a teleporter device and been transported back to the West Coast. The Civic Cafe had the typical high-class funky San Francisco feel to it… exposed metal, industrial styling and wait-staff clad entirely in black. As we were brought to our table, I noticed that the multi-level wraparound bar was one of the most interesting restaurant bar-areas that I have seen in a long time. The people who put this place together obviously wanted to create something cutting edge.

I think that if we had stayed at the bar, I would have been much happier with the Civic, but hindsight is always 20-20, and we were seated at a cozy table-for-two on the side of the restaurant.

Food Review Dictionary – Term #1 Cozy – Definition: Small.

You know that a table is small when you have to shift the salt and pepper shakers to the side of the table just to set down a couple of glasses of beer. After our appetizers arrived and we had to shift around the topography of the table, the waitress even mentioned that she thought the table was too small. Here's a tip to the owners: If the tables are cramped, people won't come back. But I digress, I'm talking about the appetizers before we ever go through the ordering experience.

Ok, the ordering experience was actually very smooth. Less than a minute after being seated by the maitre-d', our waitress came around to ask if we wanted anything to drink. Since we had gone to the Hartford Brewery earlier that evening, we decided to ask for a list of the beers available. The waitress was able to rattle off the beers and even give some basic information about each selection without even looking at a cheat-sheet, which is a nice change from the typical "um… let me check…" response that I usually get when asking that question. However, when we did end up ordering beers, you would have thought that she would have removed the wine glasses from the table…

Before our beers arrived, another server quickly filled our water glasses and another brought a piece of bread and something that looked like butter. I mean, it was beige-yellow spread served in a white porcelain ramekin, so I assumed it was something butter-like.


I still don't know what it was, but it was some fusion idea gone horribly wrong. I call it the franken-butter and highly suggest avoiding it if you go there. A few minutes later, she arrived with our beer and took our order. We made our selections (tuna tartare appetizer and a half-chicken entree for Janet, while I decided to have the rock shrimp tempura appetizer and the glazed pork tenderloin for dinner&#41, and I asked for a large bottle of San Pelligrino. She left, and we went back to trying to identify the ingredients in the franken-butter.

Our waitress came back a few seconds later and meekly informed us that they didn't have any Pelligrino, or any other large bottle of sparkling water. All they had was non-bubbly Evian and small bottles of bubbly Blue Water. When I asked the server what the heck Blue Water was, she pointed to a bottle of water being served at the table across the floor from us. "Oh," I responded, "you mean Ty Nant water" and then declined both selections, deciding to stick with the filtered tap water.

The waitress left and I started to fume. We're at one of the most expensive restaurants in Hartford and they don't have any large bottles of fucking sparkling water? However, the appetizers arrived and the delicious food calmed my rapidly heating temper. The dishes were removed as soon as we finished, and dinner was brought quickly afterwards. The rest of the evening tended to go smoothly, except for the fact that not once throughout the meal did they ever bother to refill our water. Tsk.

Since it was still early, we decided to split a chocolate mousse napoleon for dessert. My god, this was fantastic. Dark, rich chocolate mousse with crisp chocolate phyllo dough, bananas and strawberries layered in between. This was a work of art. Unfortunately, the cappuccino that I ordered (as well as Janet's latte&#41 were sub-par. Plus, they dusted cinnamon on top of the coffees without asking first… and I hate cinnamon on coffee! So I lost half of my foam as I scraped off the offending garnish. Then I looked to the sugar-packets-in-a-square-ramekin to see if they had any turbinado sugar (i.e.: Sugar in the Raw&#41, or if I would be stuck with white sugar. 8 packets of Equal, 5 or 6 packets of Sweet 'n' Low and maybe a dozen packets of white sugar later, I found one packet of Sugar in the Raw. Someone had not cared to refill the ramekin after the last person rifled through the packets. I was about to complain, but since the espresso in the cappuccino was so weak, I didn't need the second packet as I had originally expected.

The end of the story is that the Civic Cafe's chefs should be applauded. The recipes were exciting and orginal, and the food was perfectly prepared. I wouldn't have changed a single thing from the food perspective. However, at $20 or more for an entree, I found the staff preparation and the service deplorable. If I'm going to pay over a hundred dollars for a meal, I want my water refilled, my table spacious and the bread served with real butter or olive oil, damnit!

Guess I'll file this experience up to the learn from other people's mistakes pile.

Posted in Observations.

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