"We're trying to establish Connecticut barbeque," says Bob LeRose, adding wood to the smoker cooking our ribs. I'm peppering Bobby Q himself with questions while trying not to lose my footing on the floor of the kitchen at the new Bar Q and simultaneously avoiding the hustling form of chef Tom Doherty. LeRose's second restaurant, located at 15 Clark Street in Stamford behind Black Bear, is the latest in his slow-smoked outreach program to those of us on the Sound. "This isn't Bobby Q's," he's quick to point out. "This is its alter-ego."
Connecticut barbeque, as least in the "Bobby" sense, started a geographical far cry from the Constitution State. LeRose was in sales and marketing for Nestle Waters North America when he and his wife took at trip to Kansas City to visit her father. "I experienced barbeque in a whole new way," he said of the trip. He returned with a fresh desire to learn more: how did the midwesterners smoke the cuts of meat? What, exactly, goes into barbeque sauce? He became a backyard BBQ scientist.
"We just didn't have much decent barbeque in Connecticut, or at least not down here. I kind of reinvented myself and opened Bobby Q's in Westport as an experiment." I note that a multi-story location in downtown Westport is a pretty big space for an experiment. LeRose nods: "Well, when you're new and excited you get a little silly, but people responded and we made it work."
I decide to cut to some of the more philosophical questions of 'que: first of all, 'barbeque' the noun versus 'barbeque' the verb.
"I'll sometimes be asked to talk about how to cook barbeque at catering events and things, and I always start off with telling people it's about the smoke and the rub, about getting those into the meat. 'Cooking hamburgers and hot dogs on a grill is not barbeque,' I tell them. 'Now that we have that established, we can talk about barbeque.' "
To a question about pork versus beef, LeRose responds that regional differences just depended on what was available. The south had more pork, Texas had beef and mesquite wood, and KC had everything. This inclusive manner of thinking on BBQ informs what LeRose does at his restaurants, but he wanted to push those ideas and evolve them at Bar Q. Where Bobby Q's is more of a family restaurant with large portions, he wanted the Stamford location, which he calls a "BBQ Lounge" to be a more distilled experience.
The portions, while not small, are small-er, and a bit more inventive than in Westport. The sauces on offer are completely different recipes than those at Bobby Q's. The hardwood used in the smokers, U.S. hickory in Westport, is all white and red Connecticut oak at Bar Q.
"We're always tweaking everything," he tells me. "We're traveling and listening to people. We're going to barbeque competitions, testing and learning new ideas." Later, I overhear LeRose talking with other diners: "This place is really about grazing on barbeque. I hope people will get to try new things."
The "Snacks" portion of the new menu confirms the approach. The deviled eggs deliver a spicy mustard kick; their smooth filling is uninterrupted by chopped solids, but each is topped with a slice of pickled okra LeRose has sent in from Texas. He and Doherty are playing around with styles here: there are Southern Egg Rolls stuffed with smoked pork and chopped collard greens and served with a spicy mustard/vinegar sauce. Spicy pork fills emapanadas; the dark, sweet chicken wings have been smoked, and hot honey chicken is served with waffles.
Gooey macaroni and cheese is a must at BBQ joints, and it makes an appearance as a side dish here along with options like braised collard greens and tomatoes. Those collards find their way into the excellent coleslaw as well, and you'll find some chips of pork and beef in the bourbon-studded pit beans. This brings us to the "Bar" in Bar Q.
Some of us will remember the Clark St. location as the former home of Hula Hanks, the faux island bar where DJs once spun their laptops below blaring sirens and ladies in very short skirts pendulumed above the bar from a swing affixed to the ceiling. The new space is different enough to be from an alternate reality: rough-hewn, barn-ready wood covers once pastel walls; the area behind the bar is dominated by a large chalkboard listing a very respectable array of local and national craft craft beers available to customers, and connoisseurs of another kind of charred oak will certainly appreciate the bourbon selection, which includes Eagle Rare, Michter's and Blanton's among others.
The second floor loft overlooking the interior of the bar was retained along with the sort of door to nowhere which opens over the comings and goings on Clark Street. There's a bar up there, too, and another one in the bottom corner of the space under the loft and able to service the outdoor patio. This, then, is meant to be a hangout as much as a restaurant.
The main courses on offer include a juicy, maple bourbon glazed turkey breast, double smoked competition-style half chicken, and burnt ends of beef which forgo the thick char of those at Bobby Q's, and are more moist, while keeping that crunchy, chewy bark BBQ fans need. The ribs I had been drooling over in the kitchen an hour before arrived and they didn't quite fall off the bone, which I found pleasing. Call it BBQ al dente. They were also succulent: the famous "pink ring" of smoke penetrates deep into the meat under a piquant sauce and all that creamy collagen unique to the sainted swine. There was a special appreciation at our table for the sliced beef brisket, which was rubbed with a just noticeable amount of cumin.
The cocktail list was being discussed over one of Bar Q's cucumber martinis when dessert arrived. I don't want to pass over the mixed berry cobbler with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream, because I certainly enjoyed it quite a lot, but let me just say this: snickerdoodle maple bacon vanilla ice cream sandwich. Yes, indeed. Once plated, it gives every impression of being a pulled pork sandwich - albeit one covered in cinnamon and sugar.
Authentic BBQ, specialty cocktails, and craft beer: I consider this a substantial upgrade for the scene in downtown Stamford. It wouldn't be too bad, though, if they'd bring back that swing.