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Unique Foodie Fare at Casona – Hartford, CT

Casona, located in Hartford, CT, may sound more familiar to my CT readers than most new restaurants would. There’s a reason for that – Casona used to be La Casona, an establishment operated in the same location (Wethersfield Avenue in Hartford). In 2009, the owner, Fabio Caro, sold La Casona and moved to Miami. The restaurant’s new owner unfortunately let cuisine fall by the wayside as he poured resources into promoting the place as a nightclub. As a result, La Casona shut down – but not for good!

Casona's newly renovated dining room.

Fabio returned to Connecticut, and brought with him his experiences in Miami at restaurants that focused on ethnic tapas. He renovated La Casona and turned it into simply Casona, a gorgeous space that serves up truly unique, authentic dishes for both lunch and dinner.

Love the lamps!

Fabio and his daughter, Stephanie, were kind enough to invite me to Casona to sample some of their specialty offerings. I accepted the invite immediately and brought the namer of this blog, Rachel, with me. I knew she’d appreciate the opportunity because she’s a fellow foodie!

We arrived to find the dance floor (Casona still moonlights as a popular nightclub) occupied by a salsa teacher and his students! That’s right, Casona offers salsa lessons on both Wednesday nights (6, 7:15, and 8pm) and Saturday mornings (9:30pm). Don’t be shy, all levels are invited, and prices are extremely reasonable at just $10/class on Wednesdays and FREE on Saturday (what a fun, affordable date idea!). If salsa isn’t your thing, Tuesdays at 6:30pm there is ridiculously cheap $5 Zumba!

A salsa group before class.

Rachel and I were seated in the dining room next to two huge booths, which Fabio informed us are filled on weekends with young customers utilizing Casona’s bottle service.

I'm in love with those lamps too. So modern!

The table was set beautifully and our waitress immediately brought over glasses and a bottle of water to keep at the table. I love that – I go through water like mad at restaurants, and it’s great when I can just serve it myself.

Um yes, that’s wine! Fabio was kind enough to offer us some, so Rachel and I both selected an Argentinian Merlot. It was WONDERFUL and paired beautifully with all of our food.

Fabio continued his generosity throughout the evening, giving us so many courses of amazing, delicious food. We started with toasty, crunchy bread with Casona’s signature “sexy sauce”. The taste of this sauce was certainly a sexy thing indeed.

Our next course, Piononos, was Rachel’s favorite (she went back and ordered it for lunch this week in fact) and, after much deliberation, I’ve decided it was my favorite as well: sweet plantains stuffed with ground beef and Latin spices, topped with sexy sauce.

First of all, I loved the presentation of each of the tapas, especially on the above plate. Secondly, WOW. The sweet plantains were a fantastic contract to the spiced ground beef, and the sexy sauce made them even more amazing. What a unique, well-prepared dish!

Next up was a dish the seafood-lover in me was extremely excited to try (and the seafood-hater Rachel was extremely apprehensive about it as well), the ceviche, made with tilapia! Or as Fabio calls it…Peruvian sushi. Each section of the tray had a different sauce: yellow pepper sauce, rocoto, and virgin sauce. All were wonderful and had a bit of a spicy kick that got to me a bit by the time we’d finished this dish (yes, Rachel had some too and enjoyed it, a true testament to its deliciousness), but it wasn’t so much spiciness that it made eating the ceviche unpleasant in any way. The funny looking things you see on the left and right side of the tray are Peruvian corn – how cool is that? It was so yummy and wasn’t even salted, buttered, or anything! The huge kernels packed a flavorful punch. The middle compartment of the tray was garnished with a sweet potato, which tasted so good in that spicy sauce. More yummy contrast!

Out of anything I tried at Casona, I’d say the above beef and chicken empanadas tasted most similar to other dishes I’ve tried before, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t stand-outs. The crunchy outer shell was fried to perfection and not greasy at all. The chicken was shredded, which I prefer so much more to chunks, and that perfectly-spiced ground beef was back again. Fabio called the salsa a pico de gallo, which was a bit odd to me since every other pico I’ve seen is more chunky and has the least liquid of any salsa variety, whereas this salsa was mostly liquid. I definitely prefer  a chunkier salsa, but since the empanadas shape is definitely more conducive to soaking than scooping, the liquid salsa was a good choice.

Our last dish (we had no idea we had another one coming, at this point Rachel and I were quite full, but how could we turn this down?) were the Tostones Rellenos, or fried green plantains stuffed with chicken and shrimp (chicken for Rachel, shrimp for me) and garnished with homemade plantain chips. The plantain chips were the best I’ve ever tasted (Casona should bag them and sell them!) and the rellenos were again not greasy and absolute perfection. We were too full to finish this plate, and that did not make us happy, but we were going to explode with any more food!

Fabio was kind enough to share with us the dining room’s best-kept secret. At night, it becomes a dance floor, complete with a DJ. He asked us where we thought the DJ’s setup was located, and after many failed guesses, he happily gave us the grand reveal.

What’s he doing with that gorgeous painting?!

Awesome! The painting (which is pretty enough to just serve as its intended function AKA a piece of decor) is pulled away to reveal the DJ’s window! Now that’s what I call a space saver – very impressive! Fabio seemed proud of his design, and I don’t blame him.

Rachel and I are definitely going to be back to Casona (in fact, Rachel’s already been back), and it’s so exciting to hear that they are having success so far in their revitalization. We wish them the best and are so grateful to Fabio and Stephanie for inviting us out!

If you are in the area, you also have one last chance tonight to participate in Taste of Hartford Restaurant Week 2012 at Casona! You can view the special menu here (three of the dishes in this post are featured)!

What is your favorite tapas-style dish? What do you think of the tapas we sampled?