After trying the Cookhouse Café in East Hartford and having a so-so experience with some glimpses of promise, I read a review of the Cookhouse in my favorite BBQ blog, White Trash BBQ. This reminded me that I ought to make a full fledged dinner visit to one of the full fledged Cookhouse locations (the East Hartford location has an abbreviated menu, with only babybacks for ribs). I chose the Branford location, just east of New Haven. And full fledged it was: an impressive new building with a nice bar area, a few different seating areas, lots of spacious booths, a few large tables. The bar had several TVs, with a Mets game on one and a Yankees game on another. Old rock and roll album covers provided the décor, a nice change from the tired pig theme. But the shiny chain restaurant look of the place in general had me wondering if the food would taste like a chain (with four locations throughout Connecticut, you have to classify it as a small chain).
The menu is impressive, with items that cater to the serious BBQ fan as well as someone looking for pub food or a steak and a salad. Appetizers include a sample size portion of ribs, fried ribs, and an unusual “BBQ Sundae” with pork, slaw, pickles and beans. For pork ribs, you can choose the cut (babybacks or St Louis) and style (Fat Tommy style is sauced and nearly falling off the bone tender; Memphis style is unsauced and not as tender). They also have chicken, pulled pork, brisket. There are several steak and seafood options on the menu for the barbecue challenged.
The meal started with a breadbasket featuring cornbread, biscuits, and (honey?) sweetened whipped butter. The cornbread was fluffy and had a jalapeño flavor. The biscuits were warm and very good, especially with that butter.
For appetizers, my wife had the popcorn Cajun shrimp and I had the rib appetizer, Fat Tommy style. The shrimp were small but tasty, with a very nice mustard dipping sauce. I was very impressed with the wet ribs. Even though they were well sauced, I could taste the smoke and the good flavor of the meat itself. I thought the texture was good too, just the right amount of tenderness for a wet rib, as opposed to mushy like you get in chains.
I got the Tombo Combo for my entrée, a choice of three meats and two sides. Our waiter correctly guessed my choice of ribs, pulled pork and brisket before I could even utter the words. The crusty ribs were again smoky and had a good flavor, but were just a little on the dry side. The brisket was smoky and very flavorful, with a pink smoke ring. The pulled pork was superb, with a very tender assortment of pieces from various sections of the shoulder, all smoky and with a balanced, pleasant flavor. Cole slaw was creamy and tasty, without too much Mayo. Collard greens were leafy and garlicky, with just enough bitterness to make a good contrast to the meat. My wife had a salad for her entrée, and it was humongous and very good.
Sauces were good. North Carolina vinegar had a good kick and was great on the pork. The Mild, Hot and Scary sauces were good too but not all that different from each other. And the Scary, though tasty, wasn’t all that hot.
As if all those ribs weren’t enough, we split a brownie sundae. It was a gigantic but a little disappointing, with a chemical taste.
Normally, I don’t mention service. It’s either irrelevant or, whether good or bad, based on just one person. For our meal here, the service was outstanding. Our personable waiter made great menu suggestions, checked back after serving each course and took initiative on drink refills. Other servers were also quick to assist in clearing plates, offering napkins, etc. The bartender noticed my BBQ competition T-shirt and offered to take me on a tour of the kitchen, showing off their smoker. Everyone was very friendly and it was fairly easy to tell that this staff was well trained.
Follow-up: A second visit six months later wasn't as nearly as positive as the first. Our appetizers (fried okra, chicken wings) were just okay. The bread basket arrived after the appetizers and the biscuits weren't warm like last time. The Tombo Combo this time had dry, old-looking meats, and the ribs weren't very meaty. My wife's fish entree was overcooked and very dry. Most of our sides were dry and burned by heat lamps. We had the same waiter, who this time was just as friendly, but more pushy than helpful with the drink refills.
The bottom line: A good meal and an excellent experience one time, a disappointingly mediocre meal another time. The better visit wasn't blow-you-away barbecue, but real and solid. On the other visit the barbecue was far from solid. I'm not sure which is the aberration.