The last thing Vin Keola wants is for his food to be too complex. So when he set out to open his first full-service restaurant, he decided to stick with a straightforward formula.
"My idea for this place was basically 'fun'," he said of his new Brownstone Café in West Hartford. "Simple ingredients, simple food, not overcomplicating items."
Brownstone, which opened in late March, is finding its way as a new addition to the town's Park Road neighborhood. Keola is creating a comfortable, relaxed atmosphere in the 48-seat Oakwood Avenue eatery, which offers a casual menu of bar bites, sandwiches, salads and heartier entrees.
Keola isn't new to food service – he's owned and operated Pintore Catering in the area for the past several years. His business, which now shares a building and kitchen space with the restaurant, mainly serves corporate offices in Connecticut and Western Massachusetts. Catering tends to "plateau," he said, and thus he was looking for a way to use his skills and experience for a new challenge.
The transition has been easy, he said, as Pintore, an established company, has been running smoothly. Brownstone has even incorporated some of Pintore's signature items onto its menu: a chicken salad sandwich with grapes and candied walnuts; a spinach salad with goat cheese, walnuts, dried cranberries and champagne vinaigrette, and a Portobello mushroom stuffed with vegetables.
From the small plate menu, ($4 to $12) particular snacks have been capturing attention: the three-way vegetarian rolls (egg roll, fresh spring roll, rice roll) with wasabi dipping sauce; fried housemade wontons with ground pork or shrimp filling; samplers of assorted sliders and miniature tacos. The sautéed clams were a surprising hit, Keola said, with chorizo, tomatoes, onions, garlic, fresh herbs and charred bread.
Sandwiches ($8 to $11) include tuna salad on a croissant with cucumber, tomatoes and baby greens; roasted turkey on focaccia with granny smith apple, honey mustard and fontina; a banh mi with marinated grilled portobellos and pickled vegetables, and burgers with turkey and beef. Keola plans to add a Reuben soon, after a special made with leftover corned beef from Easter brunch proved hugely popular.
"They were selling like wildfire," he said. "If people want Reubens, we'll do Reubens."
Dinner, with entrees ranging from $12 to $26, features seared scallops with truffle cream risotto and crispy prosciutto; grilled salmon with pineapple and baby bok choy; chicken thigh stuffed with ham, asparagus and cheese and flat-cut pasta with parmesan cream sauce and seasonal vegetables. A "steak your way" option gives diners the chance to customize a plate, with a choice of two cuts, sauces and side dishes. The lamb offering, a leg stuffed with braciole, may be retooled for warmer weather to become Szechuan-marinated kabobs, Keola said.
"I want a dinner menu that people can relate to," he said, noting that he's made several changes to the food since the March opening. "I don't think our initial menu played enough to the comfort-food aspect."
Brunch is served Saturdays and Sundays, with create-your-own omelets, various Benedicts, egg dishes, pancakes, French toast and sandwiches from the lunch menu. These are paired with morning-friendly cocktails: Brownstone's Bloody Mary, Irish coffee and mimosas.
The bar has already attracted crowds, Keola said, thanks to a weekday happy hour with food and drink specials and a noteworthy selection of a dozen craft beers. Big sellers include Connecticut's own Broad Brook, Two Roads and New England Brewing. And Brownstone has already set itself apart from the pack with its wine program, carrying the entire line from Jonathan Edwards Winery of North Stonington.
Keola says he's happy to be part of the developing Park Road restaurant scene, naming longtime staples Plan B Burger Bar and A.C. Petersen along with fellow newcomer Hearty Kitchen as local success stories.
"We need to get people to understand that West Hartford has more to offer than the Center. I want to be part of that. I can't see why Park Road can't be a sister, or a companion to Blue Back [Square]."
>>BROWNSTONE CAFÉ, 14 Oakwood Ave., in West Hartford, is open Monday through Thursday for lunch and dinner 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday for lunch and dinner 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday for brunch 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and dinner 5 to 10 p.m.; and Sunday for brunch 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and dinner 5 to 9 p.m. A late night bar menu is served for an hour after dinner service ends. Information: 860-566-8280 and brownstonecafewh.com.