Warning: Superlatives Ahead. I have just discovered the bar of my dreams. Raffish waterfront dives, sports bars and warm, fuzzy neighborhood hangouts have their appeal, but this is a bar I thought never could or would be—a sybaritic escape from a madding world.
Floating above it all on the 20th floor of one of the tallest buildings in Hartford, Bar On20 is heaven for hedonists. Every aspect cossets the senses. High-top tables are supplied with upholstered seating ergonomically designed for comfort whether you’re sitting or standing and looking for a rung to rest a foot on. Lighting is soft and the sound level low enough to encourage real conversation. But the big attraction is a stunning small-plate menu created by a four-star chef.
Chef Noel Jones is a Connecticut treasure. He’s won countless awards but he’s a chef who loves to cook, hands-on, in his own kitchen, not just on TV. With the opening of the new expanded bar at On20, he gets to do something he’s wanted to do for a long time—push the envelope a bit farther, scaring the timid, perhaps, but thrilling the rest of us, not just occasionally but all the time, with ever-changing menus that always include a soupçon of surprise.
At Bar On20, even the cocktail list is updated seasonally. Chocolate martinis with vanilla vodka, Godiva Liqueur and espresso in the winter. Tall or short drinks, alcoholic or non-, made with fresh peach, pear or blood-orange juice in the summer. But if you want a Tom Collins in January, you can have it. You can even design your own drink. Dream it, they’ll make it. Or name an ingredient and they’ll build a cocktail around it. Suggestions? They’ve got dozens. Chef and bartender brainstorm continually. Tempting as all this is, My friends and I decided to save in-depth cocktail exploration for another time. Instead, we began with a shot glass of velvety-rich sunchoke purée, cuddling sweet peeky-toe crab in its depths and topped with St. Germain Absolut foam and tiny beads of black caviar.
Next up, the best hamachi I’ve had in years. Lightly seared so that it was still rare, it was crusted with powdered sumac, a deep red spice newly popular and old as Urdu, appropriately paired with an Indian-Pakistani yogurt sauce called raita
As our meal progressed, it was hard to decide which dish we liked best. There were no also-rans. Each creation seemed like a grand finale. And it was fun all the way. How could it not be with a chef who says he cooks to amuse himself as well as his customers?
A case in point: A culinary play on words —oyster mushrooms paired with oysters from the sea, in this instance Wellfleets roasted to flaky crispness, the duo lolling together compatibly in leek purée.
Even a “Slow Poached Hen’s Egg” was playfully presented, turning up completely cloaked in ruby-red beet sauce, truffle-scented for complexity. It’s hard to imagine that it could taste as marvelous as it did.
Noel Jones doesn’t care what anyone (or even everyone) thinks goes with what. He decides by taste alone. So we discover that soy and Parmesan, an odd flavor combina-tion, together provide a delightful frisson of edginess to a cassoulet of scallops. Who’d have known?
For all its innovation, the small-plate cuisine we were sampling was classically based, sometimes obviously so, sometimes not. Bacalhau, Iberia’s ubiquitous dried-codfish dish, for example, came with the traditional romesco sauce—tomatoes, garlic, almonds—then, just for fun, was presented atop a serving of “pommes Maxim,” a recipe originated by Maxim’s in Paris. Two classics in one.
Wagyu beef was enthroned (as befits royalty) on an emerald-green leek tart with Beltane farmstead goat cheese and a shimmer of 24-year-aged balsamic vinegar.
Foie gras, of course, is the epitome of elegant indulgence. According to chef Jones, the best thing to do with it is . . . “as little as possible.” He buys the best, cuts it thick, and —that night, anyway—served it on a moist slice of fig-and-port-wine cake spiked with a sherry-vinegar glaze.
Even heaven wouldn’t be heaven without dessert and On20’s are not to be missed. Nothing is too much trouble for this kitchen, lily-gilding is de rigueur and favorite flavors come in tempting variations. The apple theme played out with a trio of tarte tatin, apple-ginger beignet and apple mousse. Lemon inspired a pairing of citron gateau and Meyer-lemon pot de crème topped with a brittle, candylike croquant scented with coriander. Then, just for fun, we ordered “Peanut Butter & Jelly.” I hate to give it away but it turned out to be an adult-pleasing combo of roasted peanut torte, caramelized brioche and a dollop of concord grape sorbet.
From high point to high point we went, tiny bites of everything—a lark to do, the devil to describe. And what we ate might not be on the menu when you visit. But not to worry, what you have will be as good or better. This is a chef you can trust, working at the top of his game with a terrific staff in a state-of-the-art kitchen. A screen above the bar projects what goes on there so you can watch. Forget the madcap mayhem of TV cooking shows. The cool professionalism of Noel Jones and his team as they move about their pristine workplace is fascinating, and the minimasterpieces they send out elevate grabbing a bite at the bar to a thrill-a-minute culinary adventure.
1 State St., Hartford, (860/722-5161; ontwenty.com)
Open Wednesday through Friday evenings. Telephone for specific hours. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: $8 to $14.