The name of West Hartford’s shiny new brasserie, À Vert (rough translation: “here’s to green!”), celebrates the freshness of locally sourced ingredients while wittily mirroring the name of Treva, the co-owner Dorjan Puka’s superb Italian restaurant just around the corner. A restaurant that’s half a palindrome — how cool is that?
Inside, À Vert dazzles. A 26-foot-long zinc-topped bar and mosaic-tiled floors; etched glass and pressed-tin ceilings: Not a centime has been spared. Mr. Puka and David Borselle, the chef and a co-owner, traveled to France last year and studied dozens of restaurants for inspiration. “It was like going to school for two weeks,” Mr. Borselle recalled with a laugh over the telephone.
Lured away from Madison’s Bar Bouchée, a satellite of New Haven’s famed Union League Café, Mr. Borselle has brought along several favorite dishes, like an unbeatable croquet-monsieur — the world’s most luxurious ham-and-cheese sandwich, thick-sliced white bread layered with Gruyère, smoked ham, and a creamy, eggy, cheese-laden Mornay sauce. I also recognized a starter of shredded duck confit, and the pan-roasted skate wing, served with a lemony, buttery black-olive sauce and a welter of fennel-accented lentils.
The Lyonnaise salad with frisée, bacon and a fried egg. Credit Lisa Wiltse for The New York Times The compact menu emphasizes bistro standards, like hanger steak, seared near-black on the outside and pinkish-red within (Note: Order one level up on the doneness chart). Onion soup featured a slice of toasted baguette paved with so much Gruyère that the soup itself almost seemed an accompaniment. The lavish lyonnaise salad mingled bits of smoked bacon in a big tangle of frisée coated in a vinegary sherry Dijon dressing and topped with a fried egg.
Some of these preparations are deceptively labor-intensive. An appetizer of quenelles — poached fish dumplings — looks simple on your plate, but represents an exacting process in which the raw fish is mixed with a white sauce, passed manually through a sieve to remove tiny bones, poached, then put in an ice bath for exactly three minutes. A lot can go wrong. This is French cooking; technique is all.
Mr. Borselle relies on balance and subtlety over sheer caloric oomph. Short rib braised in burgundy wine is unusually lean, convincing you with flavor rather than conquering you with fat. Ditto the mussels, breaded and steamed in a white wine, Dijon and saffron broth with just a touch of cream. Now and then I wanted more down and dirty. While escargot were beautiful, the pinwheel-striped shells brimming with a vivid green parsley stuffing, they left me longing for a less virtuous rendition, one with more butter, more garlic. Pâté de campagne, while a generous portion, had too little of the taste elements (onion, garlic, herbs, black pepper, cognac) that add spice and depth.
À Vert is a good place for diners to experience the unique exhilaration of eating foie gras — two large lobes, seared to perfection and near liquid inside, their ambrosial flavor augmented by sweet aged balsamic. Almost as sublime was the tenderloin tartar, a ramekin-shaped mound of chopped raw beef compacted with capers, shallots and fines herbes. With veal sweetbreads, Mr. Borselle keeps the accompanying elements to a minimum — just a few sautéed forest mushrooms and thin-sliced potatoes, in a light beurre rouge fortified with veal jus — to let you focus on the main event.
A roasted half-chicken was the best I’ve had in ages, unrivaled for moistness, crispiness and flavor. Idaho trout was served in a user-friendly format, thin fillets neatly removed from the bones, in a delicious lemony brown-butter sauce regrettably spartan in its application. The lone pasta entree, house-made pappardelle, combined spinach and cubed butternut squash in a garlic wine reduction touched with cream and scented with black truffles — tasty, but wildly oversalted. Coq au vin, a generous portion of chicken pieces imbued with herb-inflected red wine, went heavy on the bacon lardons, in case anyone needed further persuasion.
At every turn we found good stuff to sop up — onion soup, salad dressing, the garlic aioli served with frites, the lobster cream sauce with the quenelles — sparking an avid table refrain: More bread! Desserts delivered much the same hearty pleasure, stressing taste over artistry, whether a dark and intense chocolate pot de crème or a plate of extra-large profiteroles.
À Vert shows every sign of developing the same rabid fan base as Treva. “I want this place to feel like home,” Mr. Puka told me. For my part I’d feel more at home if it were a tad less expensive; I’d trade a little dazzle for a few more dollars left in my wallet. But some restaurants are worth spending for. Here’s to green!