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Firebox Restaurant-Hartford: A review (long)

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.

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  1. what a great, thorough review. thanks for sharing your experience.
    this place is on my "to-do" list...just haven't made it yet.

    1. I just noticed that Firebox got a mention in this months Gourmet magazine! This might be a first for a Hartford restaurant!

      1. i think we were there the same night. no duck at 7pm. lamb chops as a sub. i ordered the rib eye off of the menu not the tasting menu. i was disappointed but also loved the potatoes.

        my husband and a friend had a wonderful chicken dish.

        two friends had the apple salad. same two friends were disappointed.

        we also ordered the charcuteries plate as an app. nothing special. mostly kielbasa. but, we managed to convince our waiter to get us some risotto balls [he said you could only order in the bar]. these were wonderful.

        the service was really bad. i went and got crushed black pepper for the table because the waiter was nowhere to be found.

        i would not go back to the restaurant for a long while. i would go back and order food [and cocktails] in the bar.

        1. Had the joy of a great meal at Firebox last night. Firebox has been on our list of "TO DO" restaurants and we finally got there. Arrived 10 minutes early for our 7 PM reservations and was offered either to relax at the bar for a drink first or go directly to our table. Nice offering, don't see that too much. We were lead to the back dining room to a small table for two in the corner. Very nice restoration while maintaining original brickwork.

          We started with the soup of the day, Carrot Ginger with creme fraiche and ginger croutons and the white bean soup. Both were very good. Followed with scallops over cauliflower two ways and warm beets. I had the cider braised short ribs with fingerling
          potatoes and onions. Short rib was so tender it could be cut with a fork. We split the warm bread pudding served over Myer's Rum glaze. Not your typical soggy bread pudding, more like a cake. Also, very good.

          Overall we were very impressed with the overall experience. Others have commented on poor service. Not the case at all for us. Very knowledgeable and prompt service. Total before tip for 2 apps, 2 entrees, 1 dessert, 3 drinks, 1 espresso was $110.

          We will be returning in the future, and would like to have more casual food and drinks in the amazing bar area.

          5 Replies
          1. re: jakeith

            Well, we returned to Firebox last Saturday night and I believe it'll be our last visit. Nothing was bad, but nothing was great. We were with another couple who had eaten there 3 time previously and they reported that each time the meal had been OK but not great. We wondered why they suggested it again, but really do understand when you just want and hope a place will live up to expectations so you try it again...and again.

            The place was quite busy an the service left quite a bit to be desired. Very slow and we had to ask for things more than once (butter for the bread, lemon for water etc.)

            My husband had the salmon, asked for it cooked medium rare but closer to rare and it was well done. Not totally dry, but close. I had the vegetable pithivier, a big disappointment as the puff pastry was rubbery with no hint of the flaky crispness that is necessary for this kind of dish. The vegetables were nothing interesting, some asparagus, sliced button mushrooms and peas and the sauce was nothing but pureed peas with a splash of cream. Very bland.

            Desserts were the most satisfying part of the meal. Bread pudding and chocolate hazelnut cream in a cookie crust.

            The idea of local products, all freshly prepared is a great one, but HOW they are prepared is important and this kitchen seems to have a way to go to get things right. I'm not recommending Firebox.

            1. re: plafield

              I took my husband to Firebox on Saturday night for his birthday. We had been wanting to go here for quite a while and, even though the weather was terrible outside, we went. As it turns out, I wish we had stayed home! It was very disappointing. My husband and I are not fussy eaters and can usually find something on any menu, but this one was not easy. I ordered the mixed greens salad and my husband ordered the "special" that was (believe it or not) mortadella on a crepe with an egg on top of it. It tasted like a breakfast sandwich and it was good, but it wasn't anything special. It just didn't seem like an appetizer for dinner. My salad was non-desript really (just greens with a vinagrette and a piece of baguette sliced very thin and grilled - almost like a chip). I love salad, but this just didn't have anything special about it. I ordered seared sea scallops for my entree and it was barely enough to fill me. I don't like places that give you huge amounts of carb-filled food (quantity, not quality), but this was a very small plate of food. Definitely no left overs. My husband had the ribeye with ratatouile and a popover and he enjoyed it. I guess what I'm saying is 'the food was good, not great" and for what you are paying, IMO - I don't think it was worth it. There a lots of other places that have better food for these type of prices.

              1. re: joan mar

                I agree with you about quality not quantity. I'd rather have a smaller well thought out dish with great ingredients, then a huge dish that was scooped out of a steam table. Do you usualy expect to have left overs when dinning out? How many scallops were you served as your entree? I also think your right about the typical "mixed greens" taken right out of the case and tossed with a little dressing. That is not special.

                1. re: garethblackstock

                  If I order an appetizer, I usually can't finish my entree and, therefore, come home with leftovers (for lunch the next day). I try not to overeat and then feel uncomfortable. There were 4 large scallops in my entree.

                2. re: joan mar

                  My husband, daughter and I also dined at Firebox this past Saturday night. We had the scallop dish, rib eye and roast chicken. I thought the size was fine for the scallop dish however the scallops were overly seasoned before they were seared. The chicken was cooked perfect but it was a little spicy for my daughter. I agree that the food was good but not outstanding. I had a gift certificate that i purchased from WTIC radio last year(they sell restaurant gift cards with a $100.00 value for $55.00 each week with a different restaurant every week). If I hadn't had that I think I would have been disapointed. We had 3 entrees, 2 appetizers, one cocktail and one dessert for $128.00. I was hoping at these prices I would have been blown away by the food.

            2. Great review... people normally generalize way too much & it's nice to see the high & low points.

              1. I've been meaning to try Firebox since it opened, and despite the raves from my neighbors, the reviews on this board kind of scared me off. However, I've now been three times since Nov 27 and I did not have one dissapointing meal or experience. The first visit was a Monday, when they serve only a prix fixe menu for $35. Worth every penny. We had an amuse bouche of crispy root veggie chips with garlic aioli, carrot soup with croutons, fish (can't remember! not sea bass, but close) with a brown rice cake and parsnip puree and a red wine reduction that I would bathe in if I could. And a lovely apple custard dessert, served in a martini glass.

                Second visit was on a Saturday night. We had no reservations and the place was packed so we ate in the bar. We both started with butternut squash soup with lamb bacon. I had the lamb stew and he had the duck (delicious) with amazing lemon spaetzle. Brussel sprouts on the side. No one serves brussel sprouts! they were cooked perfectly. Drinks were good, great wine recommendations, nice jazz on the Muzak (classic, not smooth). Moved to the bar itself for scotch and had a great convo with the bartender, Chris, who told us about the live jazz on Wednesdays and live bluegrass on Sundays. Total bill inlcuding all of the above, two martinis and two glasses of wine, and tip, was $140.

                Went back last Sunday for live bluegrass and burgers at the bar. Excellent service, great music, wine by the bottle half price. The bar was packed and the dining room was 3/4 full. On a Sunday. Burgers were cooked perfectly, lightly dressed greens were easily subbed for fries, and desserts (creme brulee) were excellent. Total bill including two martinis, 1 shared app, bottle of wine, two burgers, two desserts and tip was $110.

                This is our new favorite place.

                Also I should note that we are both former servers so we tip generously for good service, and we live within walking distance (you may have noticed we like our martinis and wine. And scotch).