It was once a happy place, and now it’s bitter.
The Bitter Bar occupies the Walnut Street space previously inhabited by the Happy Noodle House, which, like its successor, was operated by the Big Red F Restaurant Group. Given the new enterprise’s heavy focus on libations, it’s unsurprising that this spot retains a hip, lounge-like vibe that lends itself well to casual cocktails or an informal dinner.
Drinks range from original award-winning concoctions such as the Gone Fishin’, featuring naval-strength rum and ginger liqueur, to old chestnuts like Irish Coffee. However, the attention paid to the drinks doesn’t detract from the food. I discovered this on a recent evening when friend Shirly and I decided to split the $35 prix fixe dinner, along with an entrée and small plates.
When we ordered, there was a brief moment of panic, as the light was too dim to read the menu, and I feared I was growing old and blind. Fortunately, only one of those was the case, and our enterprising server brought over a floor lamp to facilitate our reading.
The first round of the prix fixe dinner consisted of a decadent, velvety duck pâté. The undeniable richness of the smooth liver was pleasantly offset by a bright-tasting red onion jam. We also ordered two seafood small plates, the first being an $11 oil-cured hamachi tuna, served with tapenade and tomato. The tomato had the complex flavor associated with San Marzano fruit, and the olive relish packed a punch. Unfortunately, both of these assertive preparations overshadowed the subtle flavor and texture of the tuna.
We fared better with a $9 bowl of mussels in a pork and corn broth. The broth was especially compelling, and lent itself to frequent dunkings of toast. The prix fixe salad featured a duck confit with an endearingly crisp exterior and properly moist and tender meat inside. Humboldt Fog goat cheese, fresh arugula, sweet pear and a subtle dressing allowed the bird to properly shine through.
Shirly ordered the $15 Thursday night special, lobster risotto. The kitchen wisely resisted the temptation to weigh down this dish, and a light broth with a whisper of seafood savor underscored the fresh, clean taste of the crustacean. A smattering of greens contributed color and vibrancy. I bypassed the Delicata squash gnocchi for the short rib, ricotta and mushroom lasagna. This was one of the better lasagnas I’ve had, carrying an almost stew-like heft and surprisingly nuanced flavor resulting from the depth of meat and mushroom, and the cheese’s creaminess.
For dessert, we had the subtly spicy gingerbread cake sided with ice cream. One of the more unusual, albeit curiously compelling, elements was a garnish of caramel bacon popcorn, punctuated by crisp porcine bits. I couldn’t help but wonder if this masterstroke was inspired by someone who witnessed a pig falling into a vat at the Cracker Jack factory. This then begged a question: What was a pig doing there?
The Bitter Bar’s culinary strengths lie in simpler preparations such as duck pâté and the lasagna. While a $35 prix fixe dinner isn’t cheap, we were pleasantly surprised by the ample portions, leaving us with plenty to share. Whether it’s for a drink or informal repast prepared with flair, there’s no bitterness at this bar.
The Bitter Bar 835 Walnut St., Boulder 303-442-3050