A few miles away from West Hartford Center and Blue Back Square lies Park and Oak Restaurant, a restaurant that has diverged from the standard culinary equation of what makes a restaurant popular and trendy in Hartford’s suburbs. Chef David Borselle has made an intentional decision to create a neighborhood restaurant that stands out from the rows of small bistros and trendy eateries in “The Center and The Square.”
“I liked that the location was more in a neighborhood— it’s quieter than the center. Here, we have free parking. We’re more of a destination. We don’t have the crazy foot traffic and parking issues that the center has. This is just much more chill, and the people are more chill. They’re down to relax and just hang out; they typically aren’t interested in this whole formal, going out experience. You can come in here in a hoodie and a baseball cap and no one is judging you. The price point is, therefore, less than the center but we’re still using high quality ingredients,” says Chef David.
Park and Oak offers a casual environment with familiar comfort food. Large, dark wooden booths line one side of the restaurant and are suitable for a large group of friends or a young family that needs space for rambunctious children. A partial wall contains some of bar’s noise, but the space maintains openness and cohesion. A young, hip happy hour scene effortlessly exists alongside families and seniors dining out.
The ambiance is also a drastic change from the more formal and crowded restaurants that are typical of West Hartford. However, Chef David’s culinary background proves that he can fall among the ranks of other accomplished chefs in the area.
After receiving a culinary degree from the Connecticut Culinary Institute and studying abroad in Italy, Chef David went on to serve as a manager at the Ritz-Carlton in South Beach, Miami and was chef at Union League Café in New Haven before co-opening his first restaurant, Bar Bouchée, a French-inspired bistro in Madison, Connecticut. “I have thousands and thousands of recipes from all the chefs and restaurants where I’ve worked previously.” However, following a number of culinary stints at formal, high-pressure environments across the state, Chef David was ready to simply do things his way.
“I wanted to take a break from French food, tone it down a bit, and do American comfort food that people are familiar with but from a formally trained, French cooking background. It’s elevated American comfort food. If you order fried and chicken or mac and cheese, it’ll come out and won’t at all be what you’re expecting…but hopefully it’s better than what you’re expecting. I wanted to create an elevated neighborhood restaurant.”
The menu reflects Chef David’s personal and professional freedom. An intriguing mix of southern Italian classics and housemade pastas are paired alongside southern United States highlights like chicken and waffles, housemade pimento cheese dip, and shrimp & grits, all of which are inspired by his own travels. “You can learn a lot in your own kitchen but until you go experience other places, use their ingredients, taste new things for yourself, you can’t really grasp a particular cuisine and culture.”
Appetizers, salads, sandwiches, and entrees that may be unfamiliar to some New Englanders (Nashville Hot Chicken Basket, Blackened Catfish Tacos) seem less intimidating considering the setting Chef David has created. He wants his restaurant to feel like home for every guest that walks in the door. Considering the hours Chef David spends in the kitchen, it’s important that this space feels like home to him too.
“A restaurant kitchen is a living thing. There’s so much perishable food in the kitchen, and because some processes take so long, someone has to be there from 8am until midnight, seven days a week. For example, our beef short ribs take 24 hours to prepare. We do desserts here and we don’t have a pastry chef— so we’re also the pastry chef and that tacks on even more hours.”
Not only does he seem relaxed and happy in this new space, but he has a newfound authority over his own hours and schedule. Chef David, who married NBC Connecticut’s Heidi Voight last year and is currently expecting twins, is learning how to meet the demands of the restaurant industry while being a devoted husband and family man. “I spend about 30-35 hours in the kitchen, and 30-35 hours being an owner and manager. Sometimes that means us hanging out in the middle of the day or having a late night.”
Chef David’s relationship with his guests is a priority to him and extends beyond the dining room. In late 2017, Park and Oak started offering pasta-making classes and wine lectures, with the hopes of branching into other culinary classes in 2018.
“I was raised Italian-American so growing up, food was at the center of everything my family did…Luckily, I like the gym just as much as I like food,” Chef David says with a smile.
Park and Oak Restaurant is located at 155 Park Rd, West Hartford, CT 06119. Happy Hour Mon – Sat: 4pm-6pm; Sun: 3pm-9pm. Visit their website for more information: http://parkandoakrestaurant.com/