Last June Sarah Hartford entered one of my favorite niches in the restaurant scene—a very specific, cinnamon-and-butter-scented little niche—that of the avid home baker, cook and mother who opens a restaurant later in life and manages to infuse it with the charm and surprise of the home kitchen. (Nancy Rogers of the Daily Grind also falls into this category.)
Though the atmosphere of Hartford Square may be too clean and crisp to evoke homesickness for many of us who grew up with carpeted dining rooms and paint-by-number art on the wall, the open kitchen, small dining area, boxed take-out meals, and changing weekly menus based on seasonal produce create a sense of intimacy, simplicity, and conviviality that fosters all sorts of warm, fuzzy bistro-y feelings. The Dutch have a word without parallel in English for that feeling: Hartford Square is gezellig.
Still, Sarah has caught some flak for her business plan…the ever-changing menu means ruffling the feathers of those creatures of habit who pick out favorite items on menus all over town as their bosom friend. Hartford Square doesn’t employ line cooks or make food ready-to-order–different dishes are prepared throughout the day and then customers get to raid the fridge, so to speak. “Variety is the spice of life” is the Hartford Square tagline. And despite the naysaying sticks-in-the-mud, for a good portion of us this is true.
It should also be noted that even though dishes come and go weekly, there is an idée fixe to Sarah’s menu—several dessert items and salads, and a couple of soups and main course dishes are featured every week.
Edible readers should star this place—most of the food is local, seasonal and prepared in relatively small batches. If you haven’t tried it, now, when the evenings are dark and the glow from the plate glass windows is warm and bright, is the perfect time.
In this edition of Euforkia, Sarah shares her recipe for a super rich, colorful frittata with fresh eggs, cream cheese, in-season broccolini and beautiful roasted salmon.
But first an introduction:
I asked Sarah to share some of her influences and inspirations for Hartford Square. Her list fell into two columns—cookbooks and restaurants (all now closed), some of which overlap. Then of course in a ledger all her own, is Sarah’s mother, a nutritionist and middle-school home economics teacher who taught herself French cooking from LaRousse Gastronomique then taught her daughter.
The Bakery Lane Soup Bowl in Middlebury, Vermont: The entire menu consisted of two soups and a mini loaf of bread. They later branched out to one entrée, a salad, two quiches and desserts. “I loved that place…there was a line out the door,” says Sarah who still uses the Soup Bowl’s cookbook all the time for their wonderful soup recipes. Sarah drew inspiration for Hartford Square’s pared-down concept from the Soup Bowl.
Suchelle’s Bakery, Lenox Massachusetts in the Berkshires, where Sarah lived after college: A little bakery with only three tables. Again she was beguiled by the simplicity and coziness: “People loved to sit in there, eat pastries and drink coffee.”
Miss Ruby’s Café in West Stockbridge, Massachusetts: Miss Ruby was from Texas, “I don’t know how she ended up in the Berkshires,” says Sarah, but this was a full-service, open-kitchen restaurant, in the eclectic vein—mismatched china and silverware with a menu that changed every week around regional themes. One week Miss Ruby would do Shaker food, another Texan. A string trio played there every Sunday. Sarah ate there two or three times a week.
The Silver Palate in New York City: Closed, but survived by a line of pantry products. Downtrodden by the horrible food in her college cafeteria, Sarah went on a three-year vegetarian streak. This ended when she moved to New York City’s world class food scene. On her mailman’s recommendation she visited the Silver Palate, a gourmet take-out food shop in Manhattan’s Upper West Side and fell in love. The Silver Palate Cookbook became one of her kitchen staples as a new mother. Hartford Square’s walnut beer bread is ripped straight from the pages of this old favorite.
Que Sera Sarah in Nantucket, where Sarah honeymooned: Another purely take-away shop using in-season ingredients. Sarah packed a picnic basket from Que Sera Sara every day on her honeymoon. Hartford Square’s penchant for boxing up stunning take-out meals harkens back to Que Sera Sarah and the Silver Palate.
The Artist as Entrepreneur: Sarah is a former graphic designer who climbed the ladder from paste-up artist in New York, to running her own graphic design business here in Albuquerque, to a verging-on-glamorous art director position at a fashion catalogue in D.C. “The problem was I had two babies at home. It was hard.”
When Sarah’s family made the decision to move to back to Albuquerque from D.C., she ultimately decided to stay home with her kids.
During that time she volunteered with Art in the Schools and co-founded a short-lived nonprofit agency designed to train teachers to integrate art into all subjects rather than roping it off as a stand-alone class. She earned an Art Education Masters at UNM and opened a private art program out of her home that included art classes and summer camps for kids age K-12.
When asked how her life as an artist flows into her life as restaurateur, Sarah first mentions her creative urge for change: “I didn’t like canned curricula as a teacher, I always wanted to adapt it,” which often meant capitalizing on a current exhibit in town or tuning in to whatever else was in the air. “This is the same way I like to cook…I like to change and connect with other people who are doing similar work.”
Sarah also takes great care with the overall aesthetic of Hartford Square, a spare, modern space that creates a clean neutral field for the art hanging on the walls (her own for the time being).
Sarah plans to display art from local artists at the restaurant, treating each new show to some of the hoopla of a gallery opening with food and drinks and fanfare. In December she’ll feature the paintings of Shawn Turung, followed by works by Karl Koenig and Steve Bromberg.
Favorite local restaurants: The Grove Cafe, Artichoke Cafe, Jennifer James 101, Farina Pizzeria and Farm and Table.
In-Season Cooking: Sarah remembers the farm stands of her youth and the thrill she felt when a new crop, like sweet corn, ripened and hit the stands. This excitement, connection with local farmers and following the seasons is something Sarah takes pains to preserve.
On that tack, she shopped the farmers market to fill Hartford Square’s larders every Saturday this summer, eventually developing relationships with various local farms who now deliver directly to her restaurant.
Local Products: Aside from what’s coming off the cutting boards, stove tops and from the ovens of Hartford Square, Sarah carries a host of local products available for purchase. Jam from Red Tractor Farm, quinoa cookies from Matt’s Gluten Free in Taos, Zingtopia fruit syrups, tea from NM Tea Company. Order a cup of coffee at Hartford Square and you’ll be treated to local Michael Thomas Coffee roast blended especially for Sarah. These are Sarah’s connections, another example of cross-pollination and sharing within the food artisan community.
Fall Cooking: Fall is Sarah’s favorite season to be in the kitchen. “It cools down so you feel like cooking,” and she also confesses to having a thing for orange food. Sarah waxes poetic about tart, crisp apples, onions and garlic and all of those gezellig baked goods enhanced by the seasonal flavors of nutmeg and cinnamon.
Fall treats from Hartford Square include a pumpkin spice doughnut and a pumpkin mac and cheese spiked with pumpkin puree, pumpkin beer and cheddar. Sarah also stirs up a big batch of green chile jam which she uses to glaze salmon or as a spicy-sweet accent to her sausage and poached-egg topped cheddar pumpkin sage biscuit.
On the Fork: Sarah’s Broccolini Salmon Fritatta. When you have eggs, cheese and a few vegetables in your fridge, look no further than the frittata. Frittatas are quick, satisfying, easy to make and puff up beautifully. They’re perfect for any season, really, but especially heart-warming on fall nights. In this deluxe version, Sarah uses goat’s cheese, salmon and in-season broccolini. You can follow the seasons with Hartford Square’s frittatas, it’s an oft-appearing dish, and perhaps the perfect emblem then for Sarah’s love of simplicity, hospitality and the fruits of the local earth. Enjoy!