Boar & Barrel, a restaurant and cocktail bar on the Capitol Square designed around a “pork-centric” menu, began operating last April in a historic building that previously was home to one of the city’s finest seafood establishments, The Blue Marlin.
The Marlin closed a few years ago after nearly 30 years in business and was replaced by Hamilton’s on the Square, which never found its footing in the competitive downtown dining scene.
Boar & Barrel owner Josh Jiru hopes for better success in the elegant building at 101 N. Hamilton St., which features a small dining room with handsome stone walls and attractive shelves of whiskey on display behind a bar, along with a single flat-screen TV.
Although the room is small and feels intimate, it gets noisy. That was the case on the Saturday night our party of six visited. Part of that feel comes from the fact the dining room is dimly lit, which makes reading the menu a challenge.
That was a minor problem compared to what was going on in the kitchen, however, where about a third of the menu items were not available.
Boar & Barrel lists six starters, three salads and eight entrees. But with three entrees unavailable, we were left to choose between a few sandwiches ($12-$15), a $28 steak or a $23 pasta dish. Two of six appetizers also weren’t options, but at least there was plenty of whiskey and wine to go around.
We appreciated the restaurant’s friendly service and the fact it sources most of its meat locally, from Tothill Farms in Fitchburg.
For starters, we liked the chef’s charcuterie board ($18) and cheese board ($17). The former featured prosciutto and two types of salami—a whiskey-pork salami imported from California and a spicier version from Italy. The meats came on a board with mesclun greens and spicy brown mustard.
The cheese board included aged sharp cheddars from Carr Valley and Hook’s, along with a pungent blue cheese also from Hook’s. The plate also included some fresh fruit and a raspberry jam.
While the starter boards were tasty and nicely composed, they didn’t require any particular dexterity in the kitchen. We would have liked to have the chef demonstrate his skills with the stuffed pork tenderloin ($25), arctic char ($22) or pork jowl carbonara ($19), but none of those menu items were available.
Instead, we checked out the Italian sandwich ($12), a tasty affair with melted mozzarella, pesto, tomato, prosciutto and arugula, and a salad of squash, prosciutto, spinach and marinated croutons ($11). (The menu listed local pumpkin as an ingredient but substituted squash in its place.)
The most complex dish we ordered was the kitchen’s pasta Bolognese ($23), which combined thick pappardelle pasta with braised pork, beef, tomato ragu, heirloom baby tomatoes, garlic and grated Parmesan for a terrific combination of flavors.
The dish was a winner, but the dining experience as a whole really wasn’t.
A bartender mentioned Boar & Barrel stocks more than 150 brands of whiskey, and I left with the impression it’s really a cocktail bar that serves some food as opposed to a restaurant that serves bourbon and other whiskeys.
There were a few other things that made me question whether Boar & Barrel is ready for prime time on the Square. It launched a website a year ago that has yet to be operational, there were obvious spelling errors on the menu, and having to swap ingredients in several dishes signaled the restaurant is not quite where it needs to be.
Still, it’s such an appealing dining room in one of the city’s truly prime locations that one can only hope the restaurant is able to pull its act together for a sustained run. My companion quipped it would be a good place to go for drinks before going out for dinner.
Bill Livick is a freelance writer who writes entertainment stories and Madison-area restaurant reviews for The Gazette.