Monday, August 3, 2009
The Pond House Cafe: Brunch in Full Bloom
The Pond House Cafe in West Hartford, CT would probably be booked solid on Sunday mornings even if the food were re-heated in a microwave and served on paper plates. Its bucolic location in Elizabeth Park makes it well worth a trip from New Haven (it only took us 45 minutes), particularly when the country's oldest municipal rose garden is in full bloom just steps from the restaurant's entrance. Fortunately for us, the gardens and duck pond are but a pleasant addition to a seriously awesome brunch menu.
By that I don't mean only that the entrees are well prepared, though ours were. The menu is designed around ideal (in my mind, at least) and surprisingly elusive breakfast-to-lunch and sweet-to-savory ratios. Before we had even tasted anything but the coffee, I was ready to give the place five stars for range of selection alone: omelets ran the gamut from an artichoke/red pepper/spinach/fresh chevre combo to an interesting mix of spinach, apple and brie. The Pond House manages an appealing balance of cute and gourmet in both atmosphere and cuisine, cozy and festive without making me wonder if I took a wrong turn straight into the "American Girl" store. One case in point is the pair of Benedict options, one traditional and one with a characteristic twist. The second ditches the English muffin and Canadian bacon in favor of a fluffy, trademark Pond House crab cake atop fresh cornbread, and both are served with a side of spicy roasted potatoes.
The classic, carb-fest brunch fare that I usually opt for also gets the Pond House cute-but-not-cutesy treatment. A pancake special was filled with strawberries and raspberries instead of the same old blue mush, and a stuffed french toast (with apple-ricotta and a brown sugar ginger sauce) had just been updated to a tropical version with cream cheese, pineapple, macadamias and toasted coconut with a side of caramelized banana. I was hesitant to order it for fear that the fruit would be overwhelming--there was pineapple in the bread and on top--but with an assurance from the waitress that it had been a hit so far I went for it. I was more than happy with my decision, particularly because the presentation was so fun: the french toast was two slices with the cream cheese filling in between, rather than one large piece of bread folded and pinned more messily.
More to the point, the plate it was served on has become one of my must-have household items. Unlike anything I had ever seen, it was a sleek, modern oval design (think kind of an upscale Ikea look) with a small dipping hole for the syrup and a lip to keep food from sliding down into it. The waitress tipped me off that it was by Rosenthal, a German porcelain maker. I haven't managed to track down the specific dish yet (pictured), but here is a link to the company's website: http://www.int.rosenthal.de/
If I had a single misgiving about the Pond House, it would be only that the plate was in a different league of design than the rest of the place. By that I mean only that the rugs, wall paneling and chairs could use some updating to match the quality of the food and service, but it's not surprising that this hasn't emerged as a major concern since the flowers would upstage any possible refurbishing.
So, though you may not have found sufficient reason to journey to Hartford before (New England's rising star though it is), the Pond House will be my excuse for at least a day trip each season. Stroll around the park, eat outside by the pond if weather permits, and bring a bottle of champagne to take advantage of the BYOW policy. The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art and the Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe house museums are all under a ten-minute drive away, and if yuppies are more your style, West Hartford center is its own kind of upscale suburban shopping destination. Roses, french toast and "Five Centuries of European Masterworks,"--why not?