Barrelhouse Flat: Never mind the piano player | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

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

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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

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