A culinary experience in Yale’s dining halls is often a consummate one for me. I can choose from a variety of environments, a smorgasbord of carefully prepared food — complete with information on the number of calories in a tong-full of curly fries — and the cheerful dining hall staff to complement my meal. But the Yale bubble makes us forget that New Haven is a city with many things to offer. Today, I report on a restaurant that is a delightful escape. Whatever occasion you have, be it a celebratory, serious or romantic one, Hot Tomato’s at 261 College St. is the place to be.
This excellent Italian-influenced bar and grill, near Bishop Tutu’s corner (College and Chapel streets) serves a menu of pastas, chops and mouth-watering appetizers in large portions. It’s usually devoid of college students, instead catering to young professionals and middle-aged couples looking to rekindle their romance.
The decorations are faintly reminiscent of an Italian palace, replete with a red-carpeted grand staircase, Roman columns and bas-relief ceilings. Yet it incorporates contemporary elements in the form of simplistic and modern tablescapes. The service is commendable — my water glass was never more than half empty (or full), and although there was an issue with dirty silverware in the beginning, it was quickly replaced with apologies.
The fare is relatively standard, with pastas and steaks making up the bulk of the menu. In fact, for Yale students, Hot Tomato’s mixes familiarity with novelty — some will find dining hall classics made with unique, gourmet ingredients. The Napoleon Caprese ($10) is among these. The mozzarella is deliciously fresh, but the assorted greens, tomato and vinaigrette accompanying it can be found in Yale’s well-stocked salad bars.
But some items — indeed impossible to find at home — are worth the trek across the street. For carnivores, the New York Strip ($30) is a pricey but worthwhile consideration. The steak is well-cut, well-seasoned and far more savory than its often dry and tasteless counterparts at Yale, especially when accompanied by a side of sautéed mushrooms ($6). Hot Tomato’s famous garlic cheese bread ($5) is also a must-have. It is at once appetizing and filling, and certainly impossible to replicate with a butter knife and a panini press in Commons.
As for its wide selection of pastas, Hot Tomato’s offers classics such as the Rigatoni Rustica ($20), made with chicken, prosciutto, wild mushrooms and a light herb cream sauce; and my favorite: the Fresca Penne ($15), made with a light sauce of tomato, garlic, basil and copious amounts of delicious house-made fresh mozzarella.
If you’re in the mood for seafood, certainly try the pan-seared Ahi Tuna ($22), with a mango chutney and drizzle of balsamic reduction. If this seems slightly reminiscent of the tilapia with mango salsa found at Yale, a better bet is the Risotto ($24), made with butternut squash and baby shrimp in a garlic sauce.
Hot Tomato’s, however, does have its drawbacks. For one thing, the menu is a bit pricey — perhaps explaining the absence of college students. For another, there is a limited selection of dishes in general, and an even more limited selection for vegetarians. In fact, the Fresca Penne was the only entrée item on the menu that did not include some kind of meat or seafood. In terms of ambience, the lively music coming from the downstairs open kitchen/bar area seems to clash inappropriately with the décor, and the lighting seems at times too harsh for all the effort the restaurant has put into its atmosphere of relaxation and romance.
But Hot Tomato’s’ drawbacks, which are perhaps due to a transition taking place, are being addressed. New management took over this establishment of 10 years only two months ago, and it pledges changes — including the name — to this restaurant.
As it stands now, Hot Tomato’s promises class without haughtiness, novelty without unpleasant surprise, and a quiet place to get away from it all — a worthy consideration for anyone looking for something at once different and familiar.