★★1/2 (Very Good-Superior)
Why, miles from the sea, did we order oysters? From the raw bar? Hardly a way to plumb the depths of a chef's creativity. But they were the first thing on the menu. Malpeque, bluepoint, Tatamagouche. The names sang a siren song and we succumbed.
Oh, well, I rationalized, an oyster or two would not preclude a full-scale assessment of any and everything else on the menu. They just better be good. They were. Strikingly brisk and briny. Moira pronounced them perfect. Kevin called them "a snapshot of the sea." I wish I'd thought of that.
Newsworthy for being created by the Melville Charitable Trust as part of an urban-renewal project in a neglected section of Hartford, Firebox Restaurant is a brilliant reconfiguration of a big, high-ceilinged industrial space where firearms parts were once forged. Hence the name.
We thought we'd have trouble finding it but it was a snap. Route 84 west, a block or two this way and that, and there it was, a huge box of light, glowing like a lantern on a dark, rainy night.
The restaurant has its own parking lot and a side as well as a front door. It was, and I'm willing to bet usually is, filled with a hip, young crowd. There's a wall of wine at the back, antique beams overhead, cute waitresses zipping around and-let me jump ahead-spirited, imaginative food beautifully prepared.
The menu is short but choice, sources proudly on display. Eagle Valley Farm apple salad was an inspired combination of crisp, cold, almost paper-thin slices of apple, prickly frisee and sybaritic slices of duck prosciutto rimmed with slender ribbons of flavor-holding fat. Holcomb Farms beet salad featured cooked beets, thick-sliced and served warm-too many for my taste, overwhelming the accompanying Cato Corners Black Ledge blue cheese, arugula and golden raisins. Sometimes less is more.
But not always. We'd have been unwilling to do without a single morsel of the bounty on a plate of house-made charcuterie that included rich, satiny chicken liver mousse and a thick slice of chunky, country-style terrine, playfully decorated with dibs and dabs of apple gelée and whole-grain mustard.
The terms "appetizer" and "entrée" do not appear on the Firebox menu; "First Course" and "Second Course" are used instead, and we quickly saw why. Our charcuterie plate could have served one as an entrée or two or more as an appetizer. The same could be said for a delicious pumpkin risotto with toasted pumpkin seeds and Parmesan cheese.
Entrées, too, were generously sized. In fact, Pineland Farms rib-eye of beef was over the top, a steak-house slab of rosy, medium-rare beef, wildly flavorful, showered with a king's ransom of lightly sautéed chanterelle mushrooms. Also on the plate: potato gratin and a roasted bone complete with a tiny spoon to scoop out the marrow.
Roast duck was a more delicate offering-pink slices of duck breast, tenderer than any I could recall, adorned with little more than a glisten of duck jus, shared a plate with sautéed spinach and exotically spiced butternut squash purée.
But for imagination and verve, two entrées vied for first place in our estimation. Four sweet little logs of cannelloni, filled with white beans, roasted garlic and mushrooms, nestled together under a blanket of sauce béchamel. Alongside was a pool of what the menu inelegantly called "tomato sauce," but which turned out to be a piquant tomato coulis infused with a chipotlelike smokiness.
Equally interesting was a filet of flounder with stewed fennel and leeks, fingerling potatoes and Calamata olives with a piquillo pepper sauce.
The menu said the flounder came from Stonington, a fact verified later when the chef came out and making his rounds of the dining room, stopped at our table with a look of recognition on his face. "I've met you," he said.
"On the dock in Stonington," I replied, suddenly remembering the fishing boats, the scallopers, chefs and press on a crack-of-dawn-field trip put on by the Connecticut Department of Agriculture. In the foggy dawn I had chatted with a young chef, this young chef, Jason Collin, who, while Firebox was still under construction, was out and about collecting sources-apples from West Granby, farm-fresh eggs from Stafford Springs, beef from Four Mile River Farm in Old Lyme.
Now, in the heart of Hartford, we were enjoying the fruits of his research: sparkling fresh fish, Connecticut-grown squash, excellent bread, outstanding butter.
While desserts were a tad less exciting than what went before, only one actually fell short: Chocolate doughnuts with warm chocolate sauce were leaden and tasteless. But the crème brûlée was heady with Tahitian vanilla bean, the panna cotta was a silken dream, bread pudding was homey, albeit a bit plain-Jane. Best was an apple cobbler starring locally grown apples. In a neglected corner of our capital city, Firebox is a breath of cool, fresh air.
539 Broad St., Hartford (860/246-1222)
Lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 to 2:30. Dinner Monday through Thursday 5 to 10, Friday and Saturday till 11. Major credit cards. Wheelchair access. Price range: appetizers $7 to $10, entrées $19 to $28, desserts $7.Firebox, Hartford