Barrelhouse American Kitchen & Cocktails might be the only restaurant in Chandler that truly supports the arts. Not just on its walls, where local artists hang and sell their works, or during its art-inspired cocktail dinners, but through its cuisine as well.
Consider the lobster baked chile relleno.
It is a stunning creation, a deep-green, plump roasted pepper surrounded by a sauce the color of a sunrise and split open to reveal a bounty of lobster chunks and grilled corn relish. Its presence is enough to cause a serious case of dish envy at the table. And if you are its lucky recipient, you will feel compelled (perhaps with a certain amount of smugness) to let your dining companions know what they've missed by pointing out how the lobster tail has been positioned to curve around the pepper just so, how the pumpkin-seed risotto cake is providing the perfect amount of crunch, and how there's just enough luscious chipotle lobster cream sauce, which adds just the right amount of heat, to accompany each roasted and sweet bite.
But for all its artfulness, Barrelhouse, which opened in March, is still a tough restaurant to identify with. Not because of its well-crafted cocktails and (mostly) satisfying plates of polished comfort food, but because its concept feels so secondary. Does Barrelhouse want to be a casual high-end restaurant or a mod-ish lounge? The inability to put you in the cocoon of either, both in scene and in service, makes it the kind of place where even a near-perfect dish of lobster baked chile relleno is tough to justify at $28.
When you walk through the door, there's a good chance the place will be the opposite of what you may have expected. Here, the idea of a cozy, welcoming room is replaced by a rather cold and awkward assembly of stark white walls, '80s-style décor items, and a "lounge area" that looks more Craigslist than vintage-chic. Somewhere in the back is the bar. During the meal, you'll probably wish it were more relaxing, that the too-loud jazz music playing overhead didn't seem to be trying so hard, and that your server, even less into the mechanics of serving than the spirit of it, might at some point find it in her heart to clear the dirty plates that have been sitting in front of you for a lifetime.
A shame when you consider how good the cocktails are.
Barrelhouse is the project of Kenta Usuzawa, a bartender, sommelier, and bar manager who has peddled various types of adult liquids at Valley establishments such as Petite Maison, Tottie's Asian Fusion, and the defunct Tapino Kitchen & Wine Bar. Given Usuzawa's background, the drink list here gets the attention you would expect, especially in the area of signature cocktails. Arranged by flavor composition, they deliver on both uniqueness and taste. There is a bitter, well-herbed Good Goddess graced with touches of rosemary and celery bitters. And the fruity Earth & Sun is as bright and crisp as a fall day.
For upscale American comfort food, Usuzawa hooked up with chef Larry Shore (now consulting), who has cooked at both L'Auberge de Sedona and Tempe's House of Tricks. Skilled in both classic and French technique, Shore's elegant, well-balanced dishes, put together with flavors from around the globe, mean offerings like the aforementioned lobster baked chile relleno and an excellent French Country-style flatbread pizza. Laden with pulled chicken, creamy house Boursin cheese, mushrooms, roasted bell peppers, and a touch of truffle oil, it's easily shared as an appetizer or greedily claimed as your own.
Among the small plates, there is an excellent green chile white-bean hummus with a nice heat, a fresh vegetable finish, and the perfect amount of cheese. And although you can't help wondering why the bowl of soft and chewy sautéed mussels doesn't come with more bread to sop up its sublime white wine and herbs sauce, or why the very good Sonoran chorizo sliders, kicked up with toasted garlic mayo and queso fresco on pillowy brioche buns, can't come three to an order, instead of two (like everywhere else), they are satisfying all the same. Skip the artichoke bruschetta; you've had better elsewhere.
The best dinner entrée, after the chile relleno, is the baked artisan goat cheese crepes. Superbly crisp and filled with soft, tangy goat cheese, spinach, and well-herbed mushrooms, the folded triangles, surrounded by a circle of roasted bell pepper sauce, come topped with a salad of watercress for the French country version of comfort.
If that isn't your thing, skip the uninspired duck and dumplings confit for sea bass by way of the Caribbean. You'll be glad to know that although it is boldly spiced with jerk and leaves your tongue tingling, there is relief in the accompanying tropical papaya mago salsa and jasmine rice flecked with scallions. An acceptable thick and tender Asian-inspired pork chop with a hoisin barbecue glaze was, on my visit, served a few minutes away from going cold, unfortunately.
There's also a gratifying gourmet hamburger called the Hunter's Burger. Its toasted brioche bun comes layered with flavors from creamy tomato herb cheese, grilled onions, mushroom au jus, and strips of salty-sweet bacon that don't get in the way of its well-seasoned patty of grass-fed beef. And if the juices manage to find their way into the accompanying hand-cut fries, all the better.
On the lighter side, Barrelhouse's Chopped Ranch salad is just sad. Its components of burnt chorizo patties, handfuls of lettuce and tortilla strips, and mushy avocado slices look (and taste) like they'd be more at home in the "La Viva" menu section of Denny's, should it ever decide to have one.
Barrelhouse's desserts, like many of its main dishes, are often best when they are French-inspired — like the refreshing Lemon-Lime Napoleon, a trio of powdered sugar-dusted puff pastry layered with wild berry preserve, topped with a delicate citrus-infused Chantilly cream, and surrounded by a swirl of raspberry sauce.
Will you be staying for coffee? The question is never asked. Not that you'd expect it. Somewhere between the unceremoniously plopped-down pre-dinner/post-appetizer cheddar biscuits, the screeching saxophones, and the indifferent "Will there be anything else?" from your server, you've already imagined that your artfully inspired meal would have tasted better in a more appealing gallery.