We’ve all watched the Crossroads and Westport turn into dining destinations. Even Travel & Leisure magazine noticed and recently ranked Kansas City as number three in “America’s Best Cities for Food Snobs.” Now the intersection of 31st St. and Oak, once a destination for the young liquor-swilling party crowd, has taken another step toward gastronomic maturity with Barrel 31.
Located in the Union Hill district at 400 East 31st St. (the space formerly occupied by The Velvet Dog), Barrel 31 has been open for about a year. The interior of the 120-year-old building has seen considerable renovation, and the rear patio, while no longer home to a bocce ball court, has ample seating, pool tables, ping pong and music. The kitchen, too, has recently taken a turn for the better with its new chef, Eric Carter. Formerly the executive chef of Providence New American Kitchen in the Hilton Hotel President, and having spent considerable time in the kitchens of The American Restaurant, Blue Bird Bistro and The Drop Bar & Bistro, chef Carter understands the balance between food required by a busy bar and food that will catch the interest of the ever more sophisticated diner.
Under the direction of chef Carter, the Southern-inspired menu has taken a decidedly lighter direction, but without letting go of bacon, pork belly, mayonnaise, egg yolks and fried chicken. Or the green tomato, in this case crunchy cornmeal crusted disks of fried green tomato with mustard caviar (pickled mustard seed—very on trend), and Green Goddess dressing. Side note: this classic pale green salad dressing is experiencing a well-deserved revival. Originating in San Francisco in the early 20th century, it is a light and elegant blending of mayonnaise, sour cream, lemon juice, a little anchovy (usually) and assorted herbs that give the condiment its pale green color. I think it may become the ranch dressing of foodies. Its flavor is much less heavy handed, the texture is not so gloppy, and it is much friendlier to the foods it accompanies.
Barrel 31’s deviled oysters fall into the category of bar food. Hard-boiled eggs cut in half, the yolks converted into a dressing that’s not-so-devilish (or was it just the Togarashi mayo we see on other dishes? On any account it wasn’t spicy), white halves filled with a dollop of yolk dressing, a shard of crispy bacon, a sprig of kale, and a fried oyster. I love stuffed eggs with the bacon chips. The oyster could have been anything. It was heavily battered, but in a good way (like a chicken-fried steak), and it provided a bit of substance to top the egg, perfect for a bar snack. Blindfolded, I would never have identified it as an oyster, but I like the idea, and I ate all four of them myself.
The house-cured meat board was an interesting variation on something typical of many bars of the gastropub variety around Kansas City. Unusual is the large roasted beef marrow bone split down the middle, slices of pleasingly salty country ham, and delicious duck prosciutto with housemade pickles and mustard. Crispy batons of toast were perfect for dragging through the bone marrow or wrapping with the ham.
The menu category “From Hot to Cold” features both salads and Yesterday’s Soup (because it’s better the next day) and can provide anything from sharable appetizers to a substantial lunch. We first sampled the Underground Salad, a sturdy compilation of beets, radish, carrots, roasted parsnip chips, rye bread crumble, and cave-aged goat cheese. Not being a big fan of bourbon, I was concerned that the bourbon vinaigrette might overwhelm the rest of the flavors, but the dressing was decidedly understated and not distracting in the least.
Speaking of bourbon, the Southern predilection for distilled grains is evidenced by the extensive and diverse whiskey and bourbon lists at Barrel 31. For beginners, here’s your crash course in the genre: 1) All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. 2) Whiskey is distilled from grains all over the world and aged in wooden barrels. 3) Bourbon must be produced in America, must be 51 percent corn, must be stored in new, charred oak barrels, and has a very specific alcohol proof. It’s the law. 4) Too much of either distillation has the same effect. At Barrel 31, they have whiskies from all over the world and bourbons from all over the country. Best of all, they offer flights that allow you to taste and compare these diverse spirits and get to know your own preferences. They also feature a list of creative whiskey cocktails in case you don’t necessarily like it straight.
Some of those classic cocktails even make it into the menu like the New Orleans Sazerac that shows up in the Sazerac Salmon Salad. Flavorful absinthe-cured salmon (but a bit on the salty side for my taste), arugula, kale, shaved fennel and radish make for a generous appetizer salad for sharing or even a light lunch dish.
The most controversial dish during our visits was the Southern Belle—somehow poetic as any self-respecting Southern belle would want men to argue over her at the dinner table. Imagine an open-faced sandwich of warm country ham wrapped around melty Vella Jack cheese, topped with a crunchy cabbage slaw topped with preserved peaches. Here comes the controversy: imagine all of that resting atop banana bread. I found it reinforced the sweet characteristics of the dish a little too much, but my dining companion loved it. We asked our server about its popularity, and she told us that that day there was one on every single table for lunch. So much for me thinking it was too sweet!
The counterpart to the Southern Belle is the Southern Gentleman, a juicy burger made of ground pork shoulder, topped with pimento cheese, green tomato relish, and mustard greens, on smoked ciabatta. The Southern Gentleman’s senior, the Old Pappy is a much more low-calorie option: dry-aged bison (emphasis on dry), with a subtle porcini rub, juicy caramelized onion, mushrooms and bourbon pastrami mustard. All of the sandwiches come with the option of a side of housemade fries, chips, Anson Mills grits or a salad.
One of the more interesting side dishes we sampled was an order of beet home fries with Togarashi mayo. The beets had been roasted first, then lightly floured and fried, creating a delicate, not quite crisp exterior, with a concentrated beet flavor. They were accompanied by mayonnaise infused with a mildly hot—as in trendy—ingredient, Togarashi, a Japanese spice blend based on piquant peppers, but wouldn’t a spicy Southern seasoning be a bit more appropriate?
The “Supper” portion of the menu consists of non-sandwich entrees. We enjoyed the dry-aged flat iron steak, but it is a steak that can be a challenge for many beef eaters. The flat iron is a very flavorful cut of beef, but it is also very lean and thin, cut from the beef shoulder. It is more commonly seen as part of top blade roast, but if quickly cooked—preferably no more than rare—it offers big flavor with little challenge to the teeth. Cook it more than that, and it becomes a masticable workout. It was served with a delicious and uncommonly sweet root vegetable puree, faintly smoked mushrooms, and a refreshing, but mellow garnish of celery and roasted green olives. Dots and drizzles of the Barrel 31 mystery sauce were evident, but they didn’t form a lasting impression on this otherwise memorable and satisfying dish.
Less than satisfying was the fried chicken with porcini gravy, bacon, macaroni and cheese, and braised kale. I give the chef kudos for not using a boneless skinless chicken breast. They use a boneless skinless thigh instead. While the thigh does provide a little more flavor, leaving out the skin and the bone is discarding the elements that make fried chicken taste the best.
Possibly my favorite dish of the Barrel 31 experience was the 12-hour braised pork belly, and not necessarily because of the pork belly itself, but the elements of the dish as a whole. Served with thick and silky ramen noodles gliding through a lightly smoky and savory ham hock broth, the rich extravagance was topped with a slow-poached egg and grilled scallions. If you’re not familiar with a slow-poached egg, the technique gives the egg yolk an unusually thick fluidity and the white a lovely tender quality. The leftovers, if you have any, reheat beautifully.
The elusive (on two of three visits) lemon meringue with Meyer-lemon curd and whiskey-sour meringue was worth my wait, at least for the crispy-flaky puff pastry crust and the intensely flavored lemon curd (although I didn’t detect the “Meyer” part). The whiskey-sour meringue was a complete ‘miss.’ I love the concept, and how absolutely appropriate for the whiskey-themed venue, but on that visit, the flat little runny meringue seemed more of a weak afterthought. We still finished the plate and licked our spoons but think what it could have been. Maybe next time. The sticky toffee pudding of warm fig cake, salted butterscotch and caramel was a delight of warm gooey cake with cold vanilla ice cream, all drizzled with a pleasantly salted butterscotch and caramel. When mingled with the rest of the dessert, the salty-sweet sauces practically propel your spoon into the dish for another bite.
I will say, this doesn’t seem the place to eat if you’re in a rush. The food may take a while here, but that just tells me that they are actually cooking, not just dropping frozen food into a deep fryer, which happens in so many bars and pubs. Likewise, the young service staff, although not terribly experienced, is charming but unobtrusive and will gladly share opinions but only when solicited. Lots of smiles and good energy can make up for a multitude of sins. Give them time to develop their rhythm, maturing like the neighborhood, and with the new chef and menu, Barrel 31 is sure to become a Union Hill fixture you’re sure to frequent.
barrel31.com, 400 E. 31 St., 816-569-3801