Restaurant review: Barrel 44 in Bexley

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From the February 9, 2012 edition

What happens when the funky little tavern kitchen “that could” raises the stakes by taking over a stylish place with a long-standing reputation as a powerful engine of high culinary aspirations? This is the restaurant question being answered by Barrel 44 Whiskey Bar’s expansion into the defunct — and far fancier — Bexley Monk space.

See, for a tiny and unplush establishment whose name claimed a concentration on liquor, I always thought the first Barrel 44 in the Short North overperformed in the cuisine department. But along with its new and more ambitious Bexley location comes a greater presumption of performance. So how’s Barrel 44 II doing? So far, pretty good.

Leftover attention-attracting monk silhouettes in etched glass attest to the fact that not a whole heck of a lot has changed from the days when the Monk held sway. So there’s still the titillating topography of the main dining room — where an elevated midsection is fetchingly crowned with a grid of decorative skylights. And while the large and accommodating bar area hasn’t been drastically overhauled either, now it sits opposite wallpaper fabricated from whiskey barrel photographs; the bar itself is also topped by huge booze barrels. But what’s really noticeably different from the old Monk’s regime is the easy availability of everyday food now at everyday prices — well, that and this: under mood-igniting low amber lighting and amidst bluesy tunes, that bar area tends to get rowdy, especially during Barrel 44’s instantly popular happy hour.

If that loud crowd doesn’t detract you, Barrel 44’s happy hour is an especially good time to tap into bargains. That’s when you can score “old man bar” favorites like Johnny Walker Red neat for $3 or an Old Overholt Rye Manhattan for $4.50. And that’s also when the small-plates selections are sold for $5.50 each (about half price).

I tried several of these worthy discounted starters, including: Jumbo Scallops — a huge-sized and expertly cooked duo (I got them blackened) with a bold spice crust and tangy remoulade sauce; Crostini made with toasted baguette-y bread and enticingly tender steak capped with blistered blue cheese; and a seriously generous serving of Beef and Pork Satays (three each) — kabobs of seared meat slathered in a mildly spicy Indonesian-style peanut sauce.

The straightforward and satisfying Barrel Bourbon Burger ($9) was a hand-formed and XXL-sized bun soaker garnished with sauteed onions and peppers plus a sweet “whiskey glaze.” Its side of greasy hand-cut fries tasted good but had been cooked at too low a temperature.

Though baked in a wood-burning oven, the handmade, thin, springy-crusted and garlic-scented flatbread pizzas ($9) didn’t taste smoky. They’re flavored with fun toppings like duck confit and a sweet port wine sauce or, say, jicama, chicken, corn and black beans (Mojo Chicken).

The Wood-Fired Roasted Chicken ($15) didn’t taste smoky either — but it was perfectly cooked. That huge half bird with succulent meat and fairly crispy skin came with a buttery and syrup-like pan sauce plus nifty roasted root veggies and terrific scalloped potatoes with cabbage.

While it was a hot protein draped over a (lovely and lemony) cold orzo salad — I prefer hot atop hot — the impressive, spinach-stuffed Grilled Rainbow Trout with good olives and a citrusy aioli ($22) showed how high this new Barrel 44 can fly. May it stretch its new wings ever further.