Barrel 31’s bar food grows up, not without awkwardness

%{[ data-embed-type=”image” data-embed-id=”57150bfe89121ca96b955616″ data-embed-element=”aside” ]}%

%{[ data-embed-type=”image” data-embed-id=”57150bfe89121ca96b955614″ data-embed-element=”aside” ]}%

There’s bar food and then there’s, well, bar food.

There are fried pepper poppers, greasy burgers and neon-orange nachos. And then there are the aspirational dishes that appear on tavern menus in which the poppers and plain burgers and molten Tex-Mex typically await your future regret.

In the latter category you can put the new Barrel 31, the gastropub that took over the former Velvet Dog space. And you can label that category “Trying Hard.” As any intrepid business owner would have to, given the Velvet Dog’s justified rep for wildly erratic food.

“It was bar food,” says chef Eric Carter, who oversees the kitchen at Barrel 31. He doesn’t mean that in a positive way. But that was then.

The hiring of Carter — formerly the executive chef at the President Hotel — is an obvious sign that Barrel 31’s owners, including Chris Ridler (Sol Cantina, the Drop), are serious about upgrading the cuisine on Martini Corner. Another sign: Carter uses the g-word a lot.

“We’re going in the direction of a gastropub,” he says. “But not like Gram & Dun. Good, familiar food, without a lot of pretense.”

For one thing, then, ranch dressing is not on the menu at Barrel 31. Not even for the salads.

“I’m on a one-man mission to stop ranch dressing,” Carter says. Instead, he has revived a classic dressing from the 1920s. It’s sort of like ranch dressing with class.

“I use mayonnaise, buttermilk, garlic, fresh lemon, basil, tarragon, parsley and cilantro,” he says. “It’s got a nice, creamy quality, with a touch of acid. Our customers love it.”

I agree that it makes an unexpected, tasty dipping sauce for Carter’s more traditional starters, such as fried green tomatoes and house-smoked chicken wings (meaty and impossibly messy, with the right balance of smoke and vinegar).

The menu at Barrel 31 isn’t yet an all-Carter creation. Since he took over the kitchen, in January, he has held onto many of the more popular dishes from the previous menu, including deviled eggs topped with fried oysters, a sandwich of pork belly and pulled pork, and fried chicken. He has tweaked much of it, with mixed results.

I’m not sure about the rustic shepherd’s pie, topped with a flaky canopy of puff pastry rather than with the traditional spuds. The one I ordered collapsed into a heap of golden shards the moment my fork pierced it. Inside, though, I found tender steak in lieu of the traditional lamb, a smart variation on old-school bar food (and one that plays well with that gastropub staple, hand-cut fries). The fried chicken, too, suggests classic midtown saloon fare, though Carter has replaced the restaurant’s white cream gravy (“It was so boring,” my server told me the day I sampled it) with an apricot-colored smoked-duck gravy that also comes on the poutine appetizer. It’s far too rich to be poured over the chicken and belongs in a ramekin, if it belongs at all.

But the fried bird comes off the menu in June, when Carter plans to introduce his first all-original menu. (Bye-bye, pork-belly sandwich, too.)

I vote for the puffy fried-pork rinds to take a streetcar ride to oblivion, too. What is the fascination with a snack that tastes more like packing peanuts than like pork? At least Carter serves the meat wisps with a memorable dipping sauce, a Japanese-style aioli made with togarashi, a peppery condiment that Carter prefers to Sriracha. “It has heat but a lot more depth,” he says, and I tend to agree.

That sauce complements Carter’s crispy purple beet fries, which he roasts and smokes before dusting with cornstarch and plunging into the fryer. The sweetness of the beet benefits from a fiery counterpoint, and the togarashi is a lot classier than chili sauce. This is Advanced Bar Food.

And Carter has already made a serious improvement to the sandwich formerly known as the “hippie burger” (a name banished along with the dish’s avocado slices), an appealing, light turkey patty — delectably moist because he uses both white and dark meat — heaped with goat cheese, sage pesto and cucumbers. It tastes vaguely healthy without suggesting a kitchen full of flower children. The “traditional” burger, with cheddar, needs the same reconsideration. The kitchen defaults to medium, but what arrived at my table was beyond medium-well — dry and not up to Category 1 Bar Food standards.

Three desserts are on the menu, but on my visits only one was available, a “sticky toffee pudding” that was neither sticky nor pudding. It was, rather, a dry fig-flavored puck drizzled with salted butterscotch.

“We don’t sell many desserts yet,” Carter says. Come June, he’ll consider beignets or cookies, either of which would be preferable to the toffee failure.

Of course, you don’t go to a bar for house-made sweets, unless they’re deep-fried. But even a gastropub shouldn’t necessarily throw out the Twinkie oil just yet.

Categories: Food & Drink, Restaurant Reviews