The night wasn't going exactly as planned one week to the day into the brief existence of Barrel 44.
When I stepped in, the heat was stifling, and from somewhere in its nether regions, the bar had sprung a leak. This manifested itself in a distractingly large floor puddle that attracted my eyes just as that "Goo Goo Muck" song by the Cramps squeezed through the speakers. "Well, someone's got a sense of humor," I thought.
As I started settling in at a sleek and padded Ikea-like chair positioned at one of the few round tables in the small bar area, I noticed the staff was laboring hard to right their ship. Some saint had finally turned down the hellish heat and a bucket brigade got bilging on the burgeoning spillage.
Within minutes, our well-made drinks were delivered (spicy, mercifully unsweet Old Fashioneds and Manhattans) and from there on in, it was all good fun - and some pretty darn good food, too. I just chalked up the mishaps to obvious youth and the possibility that Barrel 44 had not exorcised all of the Spirits on High that used to occupy its space.
But you couldn't tell that from the totally revamped look. That night, 44 had its lights set quite low and this emphasized the bourbon-like caramel tones of the bar while also de-emphasizing its lighter yellowish walls.
Otherwise the whiskey-centric tavern had smeary, whiskey drink-themed art on its walls, a few Short North hipster hanger-outers and that hard-working and friendly staff - who wear black vests that may or may not strike you as either sexy or ironic. Or both.
Now this was all in the lounge area, but facing it was an odd, much brighter-lit, relatively abandoned and out-of-the action room that maybe the management isn't finished with or is yet to figure out how to use.
Barrel 44 Whiskey Bar
1120 N. High St., Short North
Fortunately, Barrel 44 has got its kitchen figured out and up to speed. Their food came out looking and tasting good - and it came out super fast.
From the dark brown, hard-to-read-in-dim-light but easy-to-navigate menu of stylish small plates, salads, sandwiches and a few entrees, I first tried the Palm Beach Crab Cake appetizer ($8). It was a great choice.
In fact, it's one of the best examples of its species around town. Big, panko-crusted and fried to a crisp, deep golden brown, it was crammed with good crabmeat and came with a contrasting corn, black bean and jicama salsa.
Black beans turned up in a spicy and hearty guise in the Black Bean Soup ($3 cup/$4 bowl). Dense and porky, that bowl was a serious ribsticker.
On the lighter side was an excellent Asian seared tuna entree salad ($10). Tons of rare tuna planks were slathered with a nasal-awakening horsey sauce and piled next to a wakame (seaweed) salad, pickled ginger and designer greens tossed in a lively sesame-soy vinaigrette. Fried linguini amusingly peeked out like long antennae.
A Trip Roast Stack sandwich ($7.40) was a hoagie roll mounded with delicious rare "flat iron" steak, slabs of pork roast (not dry, but not bursting with flavor), a huge roasted red pepper (not skinned) and cheese (not completely melted). Pretty good, as were the obviously handmade fries, though they should have been cooked longer and crisper.
But overall, an encouraging start for Barrel 44.