We went to Firebox for the first time on Saturday night and here’s my review for those of you looking for dining options in the Hartford area. The quick summation is that it is plain, excellent quality, mostly local food, mostly well prepared, but hit or miss with the success of the simplicity. A few dishes or parts of dishes shone but some fell flat. Overall, it was good enough to recommend and try again but not interesting enough to try again really soon. What follows is a detailed restaurant/food review of our experience.
This restaurant’s philosophy is that the shorter the distance the food travels from farm to table the better. They have relationships with local farms and buy much of their produce, meat, and poultry from Connecticut farmers as well as bread and ice cream from local artisinal bakers and dairy folks. The chef here seems to be modeling himself after Alice Waters of Chez Panise fame, with simple preparations of really fresh food. Apparently he spent some years at Harvest restaurant in Cambridge, Mass, one of my favorite restaurants in the Boston area.
While Firebox is not located in the best of neighborhoods, the street was quiet and it’s fine to park on the street and walk if there are no available spots in the lot. I wouldn’t feel comfortable walking to or from the Bushnell, but if the restaurant is your destination, don’t stay away because of the neighborhood.
The décor is quite nice, with 3 separate sections: a bar with high tables, a front area with booths and a very casual feel, and a warm back room with tables, a gas fireplace (thus the name) and lovely lighting fixtures.
Drink orders were taken and a basket of fabulous bread was delivered. The bread comes from the Collinsvile Bakery and there was a crusty white, seeded rye, and a delicious raisin bread, served with house whipped butter, just soft enough to spread. A great beginning.
My husband ordered the “Farmer’s table tasting menu” not really a tasting menu, more of a prix fixe of a set appetizer, dinner and dessert for $39. This was an excellent value as the main course offered was on the regular dinner menu for $32! I ordered 3 courses a la carte and we shared everything.
His appetizer was “Holcomb Farms” butternut squash soup. Velvety smooth, rich and complex as winter squash soup so often is not. A tiny dollop of crème fresh and a few crispy lardon pieces floating atop made this a total winner. My salad was less successful. Billed as “Eagle Valley Farm” apple salad with duck prosciuto, hazelnut vinaigrette and frisee lettuce, the salad looked lovely but the two tiny strips of thinly sliced dried duck breast were not enough to add the much needed kick to this salad. The apples were sliced paper thin and were not particularly tart or sweet so added little in the way of either texture or flavor and while the hazelnut vinaigrette was tasty, it wasn’t enough to turn this salad into something special. An addition of a small crumble of good gorgonzola cheese and/or a scattering of toasted pecan pieces would have lifted this dish out of the mundane and a bit closer to the sublime.
Main courses came next. The main course included in the tasting for hubby was “Pineland Farms” ribeye of beef, potato gratin “Cato Corner” Vivace cheese, mixed mushrooms, roasted marrow. The beef was cooked exactly as ordered: bloody rare. It was unseasoned and served with no sauce other than its own natural juice on the plate. I’m all for letting the food taste like the food, but in order for this meat to stand alone and be great, it needed to be a lot tenderer than it was. This was one chewy piece of ribeye. The mushrooms were a nice flavor addition, but consisted of only fresh, simply sauteed enochi so weren’t “mixed” as they were billed. There was a small bone on the plate, the hollow filled with marrow that was pretty bland and didn’t add much to the dish. The potatoes, however, were stellar. A small cup of smooth, buttery potatoes pureed with an outstanding, layer of rich cheese melted and browned on top were to die for. We could have eaten at least twice the amount they served!
For my main, I ordered lamb chops, which were not on the menu but we were told by the waitress were being served as a substitute for the duck, which they had apparently run out of (7:00PM on a Saturday night!) The menu said the duck was served with butternut squash puree and sautéed spinach. I asked if the lamb was being served with the same sides and the waitress didn’t know. I requested spinach and French fries (offered as a side with aioli) with the chops and she was happy to oblige.
Two medium sized rib chops arrived cooked exactly as ordered (medium rare), again with no seasoning but the chops were tender and delicious. There was a lovely pile of spinach, plainly sautéed in a little butter and a nice serving of crisp, fresh fries with the skins still on. The aioli was tasteless, nothing more than house made mayo, but the fries were great. Strangely enough, the plate also contained a small heap of tasty but slightly dry duck confit. Obviously they had run out of duck breast but not confit and decided to serve the confit with the substituted lamb. While I enjoyed the flavor, it didn’t go with the rest of the plate and really didn’t belong there.
The dessert included in the tasting was classic crème brulee, a fine rendition with a crisp caramelized sugar crust over creamy custard with flecks of vanilla bean. Very satisfying. My dessert was Valhrona chocolate donuts and hot cocoa. The hot cocoa was a small teacup of heavy cream and melted chocolate, too rich to just sip but perfect to dip the donuts in and these donuts needed dipping. There were two small chocolate donuts, rather dry and not particularly sweet with no sense that they had been freshly fried. Without dipping them in the hot chocolate (which was actually lukewarm,) they would have been completely not worth eating. Give me a chocolate Dunkin’ donut over these any day.
With coffee, one glass of wine and one club soda, the bill came to $101.00. Not bad value for the quality of the ingredients. Service was fine and the ambiance was great. I’ll look forward to trying Firebox again in the spring and I’d love to hear about anyone else’s experience here.