“One thing I’ve learned is that everyone has a lot of opinions about barbecue,” Paul Cordero says. Cordero is the culinary director for Goatville Restaurant Group, which owns Oak Haven Table & Bar and, a couple of blocks away, the months-old barbecue joint Bull & Swine. “The next thing I learned,” he says, sitting by the front window of Bull & Swine, waiting for a lunch of beef short ribs and fries to arrive, “is that us doing boutique designer barbecue was going to be an uphill battle.”
With a nod to “Southern-style hospitality,” as the website puts it, and a menu brimming with familiar elements like collard greens and home-made grits, Bull & Swine, which opened its doors in early July, also pursues one of the final frontiers in American cooking, according to Cordero: a Northern-style barbecue, in this case “New Haven barbecue.”
The first piece of the puzzle was creating a signature New Haven Sauce, inspired by New England. In addition to more standard ingredients like smoked jalapeño and garlic, “We used maple syrup and Foxon Park White Birch Beer,” he says. The sauce, which I slathered on my Fast Battard smoked brisket sandwich, was surprisingly light and sweet, with a hint of fall apples that complimented the fatty, tender brisket. The sandwich was served with mellow, crisp red cabbage coleslaw and liberally seasoned Cajun Fries.
Along with the New Haven variety, each table has a motley centerpiece of different house-made barbecue sauces. Cordero says Bull & Swine follows the setup of East Texas-style barbecue, meaning the meat comes to the table naked save for a dry rub, with the saucing left to the diner. “I think that if you start with low-quality anything and you put enough sauce on it, you’re going to get something that passes for barbecue,” he says. “We don’t need to church things up.”
Barbecue requires smoke, and Cordero says Bull & Swine smokes its meat every day, often through the night to prepare for the next lunch service. The chefs use oak and cherry for beef products and apple and hickory for birds and pork. Beyond wood and meat, Cordero says that he doesn’t want to “overcomplicate things.” The pork belly, for example, is smoked with a sparse roster of add-ons—salt, pepper and the New England kick of maple syrup.
I sampled the Fried Pickles & Okra while Cordero sliced into his short ribs. “Everyone hates okra,” he says, “until they have it breaded and fried.” True enough. The pickles and okra were battered in a mixture of wheat and corn flours and lightly fried. Inside their crisp crusts, both veggies maintained their integrity beautifully. The dipping sauce, a house remoulade, added a touch of spice.
Bull & Swine is pioneering spirits as well as barbecue. “All of our cocktails are on nitro draft,” Eileen Bryant, the general manager, says, meaning mixed drinks are served like beer on tap. “We’re the first place in Connecticut that has a full nitro draft cocktail system.” Using nitrous oxide as opposed to the more common carbon dioxide improves the flavor of the cocktails, according to Bryant and Cordero, because nitrogen is a “cleaner, purer gas.” Out of a long drink menu, Bryant’s favorite is the Sweet Tea made with bourbon, while Cordero prefers the Smoked Watermelon Fresca, which stirs up watermelon puree and agave nectar with tequila and mezcal.
Bryant and Cordero agree that Bull & Swine’s primary influence is the city of New Haven. “I personally believe that New Haven is the culinary capital of Connecticut,” Cordero says, noting that even the Culinary Institute of America, first known as the New Haven Restaurant Institute, was founded on State and George Streets. Cordero himself did not attend culinary school, but instead worked his way up from the “dish pit.” His life as a chef has been inspired by the simplest of motives: “I love food.”
And he loves trying to do something new with it. The barbecue at Bull & Swine “is not what you’re going to get at Uncle Willy’s. We’re not Dinosaur Bar-B-Que. We’re not Brother Jimmy’s. We’re really trying to do our own unique thing.”
Written and photographed by Sorrel Westbrook.