Review: Hartford's Firebox Brings Food From Farm to Factory
Photos by Julie Bidwell
In a fireplace, the firebox is where the action happens. It’s where the flames go to work, and where the raw product of the wood is turned into heat and warmth. The name of Hartford’s Firebox restaurant in the Billings Forge complex is a nod to an industrial history of production, when pressure, heat, work and steam come together to create something altogether new and interesting.
The restaurant blends the rustic with the industrial, earth with steel. Firebox has been a staple of the Hartford food scene since it opened in 2007, but recent changes in the kitchen have ignited a new spark of energy. Executive chef Renee Touponce started this past August, taking over from Tony Camilleri, who had himself only started in April. Touponce previously worked as Firebox’s sous chef for a year and a half, after working as the sous chef at First & Last Tavern in Avon.
According to Touponce, the vast majority of the restaurant’s food is locally sourced from Connecticut farms and waters. The farm-to-table aspect of the restaurant is a major source of pride for Firebox — the farms the restaurant uses, along with their locations, are listed in the margins of the menus.
“That’s what Firebox is known for — which I think is really great — is that we are trying to support our local farmer, and also use this great product that we get from them,” Touponce says. Every Thursday she stops in to the Billings Forge farmers market around the corner to see what is available, and she says farms will deliver produce to the kitchen two or three times a week. Much of her produce comes from Root Down Farm in Simsbury, she says.
During a September visit to the restaurant, two menus appealed to two different flavor palates. The early evening tavern menu had smaller portions, meant for snacking while sampling the modest but well-curated beer selection. The tavern menu had several classic New England favorites, like oysters and mussels, but also included slightly more exotic dishes like bone marrow and chicken liver mousse (both from Four Mile River Farm in Old Lyme). Both the mousse and the marrow are rich and intense, and are served simply, with crusty bread on which to spread. For a more familiar taste, the smoked bluefish spread with salt and vinegar potato chips was excellent alongside a local beer like a lager from Branford’s Stony Creek. The bluefish is smoked in-house, along with house-made chips, and the salty-smoky combination worked perfectly. Other standouts included the meatballs, which came with a light and creamy whipped ricotta and arugula.
The entrées on the regular dinner menu, while perhaps a bit more traditional, were balanced and delightful. Touponce says the duck, which was tender and moist and served over a brussels sprout goat cheese salad with hominy grits and pistachios, is one of the most popular dishes on the menu.
So what’s to be expected on the new menu? Touponce says her main task is to keep the menu honest, staying true to the farm-to-table template that is already in place. “My main goal is to take whatever product that we get from them that is seasonal right now, and just amplify it, and make it the best we can. I don’t want to mask anything that I get in and change it into something that it’s not,” the 29-year-old says. She explains that the fall season will bring new menu items involving more seasonally appropriate offerings. “There’s gonna be a lot more root vegetables. There’s gonna be rutabaga, parsnips, beets. There’s a lot more spices you can work with, with allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, butternut.” While some classics like the bone marrow and the chicken liver mousse will remain, the new dishes will be more reflective of her identity as a chef, she says.
Situated in the Frog Hollow neighborhood, and just down the block from newspaper offices and the State Capitol, Firebox attracts a crowd that spends its days making policy and newsprint. The main dining room is defined by its high ceilings, with exposed brick walls and ventilation pipes. Local beers and cocktails adorn the drink menu. The salted chocolate pudding, with the utterly wonderful addition of extra virgin olive oil, capped off a meal with tastes that were alternatingly simple and elegant, and rich and gutsy.
Firebox’s profits are cycled back into the nonprofit Billings Forge Community Works, which operates the farmers market, job-training cooking classes, a garden, and youth programs for the children of Frog Hollow. In a neighborhood once defined by the factories on Capitol Avenue, Firebox taps into an industrial heritage, but looks forward to a sustainable, well-fed future.
539 Broad St., Hartford
Hours: Mon. private parties and special events only; Tue.-Fri. lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., dinner 5:30-10 p.m.; Sat. dinner: 5:30-10 p.m.; Sun. brunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m., dinner 4:30-8:30 p.m.
Price range: Tavern menu: $8-$24 (meatballs with whipped ricotta $12; chicken liver mousse $11; bone marrow $12; bluefish dip $9); Entrées: $23-$38 (duck with goat cheese, sprouts and hominy grits $34; salmon over farro with ginger $28); Desserts: $9 (chocolate pudding)
Ambiance: Firebox’s high ceilings and exposed pipes give the place an industrial feel, with large windows looking out onto Broad Street. The bar area is spacious and airy, with the taps made out of old machinery, in homage to the building’s history.
Service: Approachable, if swift and focused.
Food: The intense, unique tastes of some dishes may be a turnoff for some, and exquisite and exciting for others. (My dining companion and I differed on the bone marrow.) Entrées were cooked to perfection, while accented by surprising flavor combinations. (Locally caught salmon over farro with ginger? Incredible.)
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