Tweets and Facebook posts from the Market at Hartford 21 can be torturous at lunchtime if you're hungry and far from downtown Hartford. There's White Bean and Arugula Pizza with a lemon cream sauce, Chorizo and Escarole Soup; Veal Bolognese with rigatoni.
Hartford gourmands have never had it so good.
When the upscale grocer opened in mid-March, it filled a niche that had yet to be explored. It's the first downtown retailer to sell such a variety of necessities as well as luxuries (as articulated on the company's blog, "toilet paper to truffle oil").
And the market's impressive selection of prepared foods are is attracting 9-to-5 office workers and Hartford firefighters alike, looking for a gourmet bite.
Ryan and Kelleanne Jones, who also own The Mill At 2T restaurant in the Tariffville section of Simsbury, opened the market in a mere five weeks. The much-anticipated grand opening attracted local residents, plenty of media and Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra.
"It was insane, unheard of," Kelleanne says of the whirlwind opening. "But our vendors really stepped up for us."
The resulting unique space is a food-lover's paradise, with bright, clean, organized displays. Butcher and seafood cases highlight fresh cuts and catches. The produce section, a kaleidoscope of color, often features the more exotic fruits and vegetables, such as ugli fruit. An assortment of high-end cheeses, pâtés, olive oils and vinegars could inspire an impromptu picnic.
The prepared foods are the focus at lunchtime, with offerings ranging from deli sandwiches and hot soups to such restaurant-quality entrees as beef short ribs, seared diver scallops and veal osso buco.
"People are so excited," Kelleanne says. They "can eat lunch here every single day of the week and have something different" each time.
Among the choices: a noodle bar, where customers can choose any combination of meats, vegetables and sauces to top a serving of house-made ramen noodles. A 16-ounce serving costs $5, regardless of weight. (That same one-size pricing system applies to the salad bar.)
A pizza oven churns out specialty pies like pork belly with shaved apple and fennel, and broccoli rabe with cipollini onions and aged balsamic vinegar. And the pizzas aren't just for afternoon and evening — "breakfast" pies feature mushrooms with blueberry jam and ricotta, or chorizo and scrambled eggs.
Baristas man a full-service coffee bar, creating frothy lattes and cappuccinos for morning and midday java breaks. Sweets like muffins, scones and cookies are baked fresh on-site. Also made in-house are several flavors of gelato. Tastease Bakery provides batches of their brightly colored mini-doughnuts, and artisan breads come from Hartford Baking Co., a few miles away in Elmwood.
On weekends, the customer base shifts, Ryan says. That's when the curious epicures from the suburbs come in to browse the specialty foods.
"People are coming down [to the market] as a destination," he says. "We have people buying whole lobes of foie gras. We sell a ton of truffle oil and cheeses."
"Weekend shoppers are bringing home bagfuls of groceries," Kelleanne says, "which is exactly what we want. If we make it so that they experience something here during the weekends, they'll come back every weekend."
Plans are in the works for upcoming events, such as jazz brunches, cookbook signings, cooking classes and an open-air farmer's market on the sidewalk outside the store. The Market has already hosted a private shopping night for downtown residents and a "Breakfast With the Bunny" Easter event for children. Weekly "Foodie Friday" afternoon samplings have featured Kobe beef, truffle products and Mediterranean tapas.
The Joneses, both natives of central Connecticut, formerly owned Pintore Catering in Hartford and opened The Mill at 2T in July 2009 after a stint in Las Vegas. They've been thrilled with the response to the market's opening.
"The Hartford residents are really all around each other and support anything that happens down here, which is great," Ryan says. "And it helps create a lot of foot traffic."
"We believe wholeheartedly in Hartford," Kelleanne says. "We're hoping that with this market…and the buzz, that other retailers and restaurateurs will want to take part and build something here."
The Market at Hartford 21 is at 230 Asylum St. It's open Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and weekends, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Complimentary valet parking is available Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Information: 860-560-2121 or themarket21.com.
>>Coastal Gourmet Group has paired with Shipyard Brewing Co. to open Shipyard Tavern, a new restaurant and bar at Latitude 41° in Mystic. In partnership with Shipyard, the tavern serves several of the Portland, Maine, brewery's beers and ales on tap. The Shipyard Tavern and Latitude 41° are next to Mystic Seaport (105 Greenmanville Ave.). Information: 860-572-5303 or mysticseaport.org/latitude41.
>>The Burger Co. is open at 345 New London Turnpike in Glastonbury. The menu includes burgers made with all-natural Niman Ranch beef, turkey burgers, kosher hot dogs and french fries. Hours: Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Information: 860-657-5555 or theburgerco.net.
>>Carole Peck, proprietor of Good News Café, has opened Zeeburger at 670 Main St. in Woodbury. The casual eatery serves an array of burgers made with organic beef, salmon, vegetables and even falafel, along with Kobe beef hot dogs, milkshakes made with hand-dipped ice cream, hand-cut fries and fresh salads. Information: 203-405-6011 or zeeburger.com.
>>Tuscany Grill, 120 College St., Middletown, introduces a new spring menu with passion-fruit-glazed Atlantic salmon, grilled pork tenderloin with rainbow fingerling potatoes and almond-crusted scallops served over house-made crab-and-artichoke ravioli. Seasonal cocktail specials are also available. Information: 860-346-7096 or tuscany-grill.com
>>Hamden's Spring Restaurant Week continues through Sunday, with prix-fixe lunch and dinner specials at 16 town eateries. For menus and information, visit hamdenrestaurantweek.com.
>>Christopher Steele has been named executive chef at the Hilton Hartford. He will oversee the daily culinary operations of the Hilton and the hotel's M&M Coffee Shop. Steele previously worked as a restaurant and banquet chef at the hotel until 2007. Most recently, he was head chef at Prospect Café in West Hartford.
>>The sixth annual "Vina Musica" event to benefit the Community Music School of Essex takes place Sunday at Chamard Vineyards in Clinton at 2:30 p.m. Events include "A Taste of States," with a tasting of American wines and food stations manned by chefs Jared Calderone, Kevin Cottle, David Foster and Bun Lai. A "Special Reserve Wine Dinner" will be held that evening featuring a multi-course wine dinner prepared by several star chefs. Tickets for the main tasting are $50 ($45 each for two or more); a patron ticket, including entrance to the wine dinner, is $150. For more information, or to purchase tickets, call 860-767-0026, Ext. 350, or e-mail VinaMusica@yahoo.com. Chamard Vineyards is at 115 Cow Hill Road in Clinton.
>>Burtons Grill, 100 Evergreen Way, South Windsor, hosts a tequila dinner Monday at 6:30 p.m. Four courses of Mexican-inspired dishes will be paired with complementing tequila cocktails. Cost is $75, including tax and gratuity. Reservations: 860-432-4575.
>>Plan B Burger Bar, 120 Hebron Ave., Glastonbury, hosts an Ommegang beer dinner Monday at 6:30 p.m. Cost is $45, plus tax and gratuity. Reservations: 860-430-9737.
>>MiKro Beer Bar, 3000 Whitney Ave., Hamden, hosts a charity beer dinner on Tuesday at 5:30 p.m., with proceeds going to Camp Rising Sun and We Adopt Greyhounds. Four courses, featuring produce, meats and cheeses from Connecticut purveyors, will be paired with local beers. Cost is $50, and tickets are available at the restaurant. Information: 203-553-7676 or mikrobeerbar.com
>>The Griswold Inn, 36 Main St., Essex, hosts an "open house" spring wine tasting Tuesday at 5 p.m. Sixteen different wines will be featured, along with a selection of Cabot cheeses. The event takes place in the Inn's Wine Bar. Cost is $10. Information and tickets: 860-767-1776 or griswoldinn.com.
>>Cavey's, 45 E. Center St., Manchester, hosts a wine dinner May 6 at 7 p.m. Four courses are paired with four wines, two of which are selected from Cavey's reserve cellar. Cost is $110. Reservations: 860-643-2751.
>>Smokin' With Chris, at 59 W. Center St., Southington, hosts a "California Dreamin'" wine dinner May 18 at 6:30 p.m. Cost is $65, plus tax and gratuity. Reservations are required: 860-620-9133.
>>Send restaurant news at least 10 days before publication to MaryEllen Fillo at firstname.lastname@example.org, 860-241-3717 (phone), 860-520-6927 (fax) or in care of The Courant, 285 Broad St., Hartford, CT 06115.