Barrelhouse Flat: Never mind the piano player 

Stephen Cole's cocktails and punches are the real deal at this two-story haunt. Plus: Cantina Laredo, Barbari

click to enlarge The Elk’s Own at Barrelhouse Flat - ANDREA BAUER

Apparently there are two ways to experience Barrelhouse Flat. One is to ask to be seated in the more intimate and presumably less drafty (and, by virtue of its location up a flight of pesky steps, less fratty) second-floor salon. The other is to sit downstairs—and not only sit downstairs, but fail to order the pig's face poutine. Those are the two mistakes I made.

There are no mistakes I could discern on the deliciously overwhelming cocktail list, a nod to the voluminous offerings over at the Violet Hour, where Barrelhouse partner Stephen Cole spent countless hours muddling and tincturing. The pedigree of both Cole and general manager Greg Buttera, formerly of the Aviary, is all over this sprawling if traditional list (there's no trace of liquid nitrogen or spherification here). The Elk's Own, one of two whiskey cocktails available under the "Egg" header—there are six more egg-frothed drinks of the gin, cognac, and pisco varieties—combined bonded rye, port, lemon, simple syrup, Angostura bitters, and, yes, egg white in a perfect antidote to both the chill and the parade of holiday-costumed Lincoln Parkers who stumbled in and out.

My failure to leave my table was not as unwise as my failure to leave the first page of the cocktail menu, where I met just as much success with the Whiskey Smash, a drink with a somewhat similar list of ingredients to the Elk's Own (sub the egg white and port for Demerara syrup and orange bitters) and yet a refreshing change of pace. My date opted for the Pimm's Cup, which, with its requisite cucumber and surprising strawberries, was not the best match for a blustery night but a good match for him.

Having wished I ordered the poutine, I can say of the chicken and waffles I ended up with that the dish did a serviceable job of sopping up the booze. Considering that the items on Barrelhouse's cocktail list outnumber the items on the fancy-snacky dinner menu, oh, about sixfold, perhaps sopping is the point. But while others' accounts of the poutine have been revelatory, I can only say of the chicken that it had a consistent consistency (mushy throughout as opposed to crunchy juxtaposed against juicy) and that the waffles suffered the same mealy fate.

I wish I had skipped the waffles and the trio of dips (smoked trout, chipotle-sweet potato, and garlicky cauliflower) and ordered three plates of the blue cheese and mushroom beignets. They weren't super mushroomy or cheesy but balanced earth and funk inside a crisp (!) exterior, surrounded by a peppery-yet-sweet gastrique. Those beignets more than lived up to the sophistication of the cocktails—as I'm sure the poutine and the salon would have. —Mara Shalhoup

Cantina Laredo's angular glass-and-stone architecture and soaring fireplaces are certainly impressive—if a bit much for a chain that leans so heavily on the American interpretation of "Mexican" and hardly at all on the universal interpretation of "modern" (the menu proposes to be both). But what this Texas-based chain lacks in culinary sophistication it makes up for in satisfying grub. Perhaps I'm unfamiliar with the finer points of modern salsa-making, but I was surprised to find that one of two complimentary salsas arrived hot—not chile-laden hot, which would have been fine, but hot hot. I won't say what salsa served at that temperature resembles, but I will say I was worried it would be a harbinger of missteps to follow.

There were none. A shrimp, scallop and "fish" ceviche was delicate and balanced, further brightened by small hunks of capers and green olives. Then came the braised pork shanks, slathered in a chipotle-wine sauce that, according to the menu, shows up on the camarones as well. I'm not sure how well a sauce like that would pair with shrimp, but its supersmoky decadence was a divine match for the butter-soft carnitas, which easily could have fed two hungry tourists. The chile relleno was even more surprising. The highly capable waiter steered me in its direction, and what initially appeared to be your typical goopy mess turned out to be a lesson in how looks can deceive. That a restaurant like this, with its overly glossy exterior and overly basic menu, could produce a dish that beneath its unassuming surface revealed such a nuanced blend of perfectly prepared ground beef, plump raisins, and toasted almonds—well, let's just say it lived up to its surroundings. —Mara Shalhoup

Just down the street from Roots, the self-proclaimed Quad Cities-style pizza joint, is Barbari, a small, delicately muraled storefront that offers an escape from the stiletto set. There you can BYO and actually hear and speak to your companions. Better than that—and I'm from the Quad Cities—is the heavenly pizza. The hand-tossed dough, crisp thin crust, and rectangular slices recall venerable QC spots like Clint's, but in my opinion tops them—the mushroom and sausage (the latter from Bari) most notably. The rest of the menu consists of exceptionally fresh salads (the house greens come with beets and a light tarragon vinaigrette), soups (a tart pomegranate, "beans 'n' greens," a house tureen of the day), sandwiches, and house-baked barbari, the namesake Persian bread, served with "smears" such as an eggplant or cucumber-yogurt spread. There are also entree plates and daily specials—on one visit a salmon fillet or savory beef cutlet, both served with grilled vegetables and polenta. Vegetarian and gluten-free options abound. This is wholesome, satisfying food, made with love. —Kate Schmidt

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