(06/23/12) (10/20/12) (12/08/12)
Created by owner Bob Lerose of Westport's Bobby Q's, Bar Q is a lounge with a barbecue theme and a barbecue tapas menu meant to be more of a complement to the drinks than a barbecue meal. It would have been easy to lift, drop and reportion the same dishes as cooked at Bobby Q's, but Lerose opted to create an entirely new menu. Even the same items offered at both restaurants are cooked using entirely different recipes.
It's a little confusing to find at first, because the address is 261 Main Street, but the entrance is around the back on Clark Street. There's a long lower level bar with many stools and nearby hightops. The separate dining area is a combination of booths and tables, each topped with an assortment of sauces and a stack of plates for sharing. Upstairs there's another bar and more intimate seating. A roomy deck allows outdoor dining in warmer months.
The plates are small but the menu is quite large, offering dozens of choices with varying levels of barbecue seriousness. The good news is it's all a la carte, so you can configure your own custom meal or snack as you wish, either all at once or in waves. The bad news is it's all a la carte, so prices add up quickly.
Basics include pork ribs, pulled pork, brisket and smoked chicken. There are also two kinds of sausage, burnt ends, pork belly, smoked wings and an assortment of appetizers on the barbecue periphery such as Southern egg rolls and chicken and waffles. But it's not all 'cue; seafood and vegetarian options abound.
I made three well spaced visits, all on weekend afternoons—the first one solo and the others with two friends each.
Southern Egg Rolls: Two mini egg rolls stuffed with pork ($5.00) were far more mini and far less stuffed than expected. One member of the second visit's threesome likened them to knishes, I likened them to a LaChoy product, and all of us wished we likened them more than we did. We didn't get much smoke, but then again, we didn't get much pork. The star of the show was the part I loved: a golden mustard sauce that topped the rolls on the second visit after being served on the side for dipping on the first. A good blend of sweet, spicy and tangy that was a step above the similar Cattlemans sauce, this was far better than what was under it.
Vidalia Onion Strings: Served in a paper lined metal cylinder, the second visit's snackable strings ($4.00) were light on batter (fell off), flavor (AWOL) and crispness (completely limp). A second attempt from the kitchen improved upon the crispness and temperature, but a quick drain left them very greasy.
Wood Kissed Wings: The second and third visits' quintets of separated drumette and wingette pieces ($6.00) sat in a row in the tin tray that also shared space with the other appetizers. We intended on sharing all along, but be aware that at Bar Q, each round gets served in a single tray regardless of who ordered what, to encourage sharing. I'm sure separate trays can be requested.
Anyway, back to the wings. These had a generous but not overwhelming coating of a mid-thickness, browner-than-brick barbecue sauce that had a little tang and a little sweetness, but which let the chicken do the talking. Under the sauce, the wings had skin that was short of crisp. Below that, the meat was perfectly tender, moist and a delightfully pink—not from underdoneness (skin aside) but from smoking. All of the meat had a lightly smoky, slightly sweet flavor with a little kick and a little smoke. Crisp these babies up, I thought, and they're on the bubble as a candidate for my Favorite Wings list. The third visit's wings were a little less successful thanks to a little more sauce, a lot less smoke and enough char—along the lines of a Chinese restaurant spare rib—that the grill flavor overwhelmed the smoke. Still above average, but no longer a threat for my wings list. Of note was that on both tries, the breakdown of the five wing pieces was four wingettes to a single drummette.
Pork Belly: Bar Q was out of this item on the first two visits, but the third try was the charm. A single chunk of pork belly ($8.00) had about half the area as a deck of cards but twice the height. Its top crust had nice bumpiness, a juicy sheen and borderline crispness. The meat has a faint smoke ring close to the surface, surprisingly white meat below that and a significant amount of fat as a middle layer that could be discarded with minimal effort. Flavor had hammy porkiness and only subtle hints of smoke and rub. Tenderness was decent.
Hot Honey Chicken and Waffles: For $6.00 you get four silver dollar sized Eggo or equivalent mini waffles, each topped with half a McDonald's equivalent chicken nugget, with the hot honey syrup cooked in. It's a startling presentation and a questionable execution that'll either make you say, "Oh, how cute!" or "What was I thinking?" Count me in the latter camp. If you consider the entertainment value along with the food value, this dish is a bargain. Otherwise, consider it an insult to your intelligence.
Burnt ends: If I were grading based on texture alone, I might give Bar Q's burnt ends ($6.00 for about eight one-inch cubes) an A-. The surface on two different tries was dark and bumpy with rub. The doneness was perfect and the wilting tenderness was nearly perfect, with only some steaminess from visit 1 holding it back. Throw in the ever elusive magical caramelly texture and good juiciness and we're talking solid A, right? Not so fast: with two or three pieces on each serving nearly all fat, the grade goes down. Flavorwise, the rub was potent on the first visit—though only on the "corner" pieces—and virtually tasteless on the third visit. Smoke was minimal at best both times, as was color. Bar Q's burnt ends have the potential to be one of the best in the region, but they need more careful cutting and discarding of the all-fat pieces, more crispness, more rub and more smoke.
Ribs: Tried all three times, the St Louis Cut Sticky Ribs ($6.00) varied somewhat with each visit. On the first they arrived unsauced, short but plump, looking like babybacks but hard to tell given their diminutivity. The ribs were a little steamy and not at all smoky, but a good combination of tender and rub-heavy. Flavor prevailed most at the perimeter.
On the second visit the ribs were sauced St Louis cut spares: a little longer but not as thick. This time the smoke was more noticeable, the rub even heavier, with a nice heat/sweet tandem. I liked that there were distinct flavors coming from the rub, sauce and interior, and that the flavor went all the way down to the bone. More crust would push these over the top, but the third visit's ribs instead had a much steamier surface (otherwise, it duplicated the second visit's ribs).
Of the mainstream meat dishes, the ribs were probably the most consistent item. Prices can add up quickly at Bar Q, but the ribs are one of the few steals at $1.50 per bone.
Pulled Pork: Interestingly, the second visit's pulled pork ($5.00) came unsauced. Either that or what little sauce it received got absorbed into the dry meat. On the plus side, the pink coloring and very high bark content hinted at flavor that was delivered in the bite—the right combination of rub, smoke and pork. Aside from the dryness, the texture was fine, coming in neither overcooked nor undercooked (nor steamy), With a little sauce added (I prefer the peppery vinegar), Bar Q's pork wound up being more than serviceable—on that visit. The large chunks of pork on the most recent try subtracted all the bark, added a nondescript sauce and enough steaminess that they could have come out of a sauna. Dryness solved—sort of. The irony is that the dry previous serving had more flavor.
Brisket: Billed as topped with au jus, that's exactly what the half dozen or so slices ($5.00) were on both the first and second visits. The immediate suspicion based simply upon the menu is that the jus is a coverup for dry brisket, but that wasn't the case. The slices had good texture that stretched without breaking and had their own tenderness and moisture even aside from the sauce. If there was a cover-up, it was that the brisket itself didn't have much flavor (rub, smoke, beef, bark, salt, what have you) as it could aside from the sauce. Still above average though.
Applewood chicken sausage: Tried on the first visit, this single link ($4.00) brought a grilled flavor outside and a chickeny flavor with pleasant seasoning inside. The charred surface had good moistness but the inner meat was dry.
Three different sauces are available on the table in glass bottles. All are a mix of sweet, tangy and spicy, with these components and thickness altered on each one. I like that they're speckled with spices rather than smooth.
Cucumber salad: With too much tomato (nearly half) and too much sitting time on the second visit and too many onions (more than half) on the third visit, the cucumber salad ($3.00) was disastrous both times. Another insult.
Mac and Cheese: Interestingly, this side ($6.00) cost more than the ribs. Fusilli isn't silly at all when perfectly cooked (no wilting here) and well coated with a smooth and mild but completely adult cheese sauce.
Cole slaw: Creativity points for the inclusion of raw collard greens along with the cabbage in this slaw ($3.00), but at a loss of flavor points.
Cornbread: A mini loaf made with cheese (don't worry, it doesn't overwhelm) and jalapenos (ditto) wound up being mostly cakey—as well as the best thing on the menu. I like that it's served warm, I like the moistness and I like the crunchy crust coupled with the fluffy interior. I don't like that it costs $4.00, but I'd get it again if I ever go back again.
If you're going to have a little barbecue tidbit with your drink, $5.00 for a pile of pulled pork or $6.00 for a small plate of burnt ends seems fair enough, and it's nice that you don't have to commit to an entire meal if you just want to have a taste of one meat and one side. But for someone who does commit to a dinner consisting of three meats, two sides and cornbread, the a la carte pricing yields a tray that'll run you $26.00, which isn't quite so fair even before you get into the quality.
Admittedly, the three day visits don't necessarily give a representative sample of how Bar Q rolls at night. That said, if you're going to be open for lunch, you might as well do it right.
Many items run out, so if you have your heart set on a specific one, it's best to call ahead.
The Bottom Line
Results have been mixed and there's no getting around it: Bar Q is still working out some kinks a half year after opening. The barbecue tapas concept is an interesting one, but it's tough to pull off without some of the items looking lame and others looking overpriced. But the real challenge here is getting the core product consistent.
I do know this: there have been flashes of hope, so perhaps with a few tweaks and improved focus Bar Q can live up to that potential.
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