East Bay Wine Bar Revival
The Barrel Room hits the sweet spot with a wine-forward emphasis on ding.
Photo by Lori Eanes
Wine bars came and wine bars went. Remember Zza’s Enoteca on Grand Avenue? The Franklin Square Wine Bar near Broadway and Grand? Vine Wine Bar on Lakeshore? For a moment, around 2008-2009, they heralded a new era in Oakland dining, one distinguished by the primacy of vino, with food menus that focused on small plates and played second fiddle to unusual vintages and varietals. But that moment ended up seeming like a nanosecond once cocktails arrived on the scene. Mixologists eclipsed wine buyers and sommeliers, and small-batch bourbons and artisanal gins moved up in the hierarchy above single-vineyard Pinot Noirs and quirky proprietor’s blends.
Then wine bars came again. Maybe they never really went away but fell out of fashion, with one kind of alcoholic beverage geekiness replacing another. But suddenly, one day I turned around and there was Marc 49 in Temescal, Toast in Rockridge, Ordinaire in Grand Lake, Downtown Wine Merchants at Frank Ogawa Plaza, Deep Roots inside Swan’s Market, and Pour in Montclair Village. Some have full bars to keep the cocktail customers satisfied; some emphasize their kitchens more than others.
The Barrel Room—rather inconspicuous for the past two years in its humble College Avenue digs on the same long block as McNally’s, A16, and the Rockridge Library—hits the sweet spot. Here, wine is the cornerstone, and owners Sarah Trubnick and Carolyn Johnson make sure that idea is front and center. In contrast, their Barrel Room San Francisco, by virtue of its Financial District location, swanky design, elaborate cocktail program, and wider ranging menu, caters more explicitly to the checked shirts and tailored suits crowd, and grafts a lot of downtown niceties onto its wine bar roots.
The food is anything but an afterthought. Each dish we tried on two visits looked beautiful on the plate and struck pleasing flavor notes from market-fresh ingredients and seasonally appropriate preparations. But everything—from the emphasis on wine flights (three ample pours in the $15 to $25 range); and Tuesday night bottle specials (buy one from the retail shelves and the $30 markup is waived); to the cozy interior’s romantic lighting, floor-to-ceiling wine racks, eight-seat bar, and plank-top tables seating about 22 on chairs and banquettes—sent the message that this is a place to explore the mysteries and pleasures of wine. Doing that during the course of an excellent meal makes for a satisfying evening.
The wines at the Barrel Room are not inexpensive. You can find a glass of Pinot Gris or Sauvignon Blanc for $12 or $13, but reds start at $14, and a higher-end Pinot Noir, Zin, or Cab might set you back $18 to $28 (multiply by four to get the bottle price). Still, the choices, predominantly domestic during our dinners, are fascinating, and bargains can be found in the flights. Robin sampled three very different Zinfandels for $20, and similar deals could be found for California Pinot Noirs, Cabernets, and pre-Prohibition “lost” classics, as well as reds from winemakers who proudly call themselves “Rhone Rangers,” and from Oregon, Washington, and the East Coast. Our first visit was during Oakland Restaurant Week, and the optional pairing for the three-course $40 prix fixe was only $10—for a 2010 German Riesling to go with the caramelized celery root and house-cured steelhead trout; a tart, almost sour 2011 Croatian red that cut through the richness of braised short ribs; and a sparkling Italian Spumante to complement the banana-butterscotch roulade for dessert.
Every wine was described in loving detail by the house manager, Siavash Kouchek. He knows his stuff and is eager to dispense his expertise without being pushy. When we returned on a Tuesday to find out what “bottle night” was all about, the emphasis, which changes every three months, was still on domestic wines, but after questioning us about our preferences—Robin is a Zin and Rhone gal; I drink everything while favoring Pinot Noir—he guided us to a 2012 Saint-Joseph that was still in stock from a previous French focus. With the normal markup, we would have been charged $61, typically well outside our budget. We paid $31, and my online research turned up average retail prices of $30. Work the flights and the bottle nights, and the Barrel Room starts to look like a bargain.
Kouchek is a superb host. We wished, however, that he wasn’t the only one working the floor, so we could have tapped his knowledge at a more leisurely pace, and so the timing of dishes coming out of the insanely small kitchen might have been less herky-jerky. Uneven delivery aside, we found plenty to our liking on the small but diverse menu of six “snacks & sides,” six “small plates,” four “large plates,” and two desserts. From the artful plating and forthright, balanced flavors, you wouldn’t guess that co-owner and executive chef Manuel Hewitt was working in such close quarters. His touch is precise but unconstrained. The caramelized celery root and steelhead trout combo was arranged in six large bites and accented perfectly by a black pepper-dill crème fraîche and sprigs of sorrel. Bruschetta topped with beets and goat cheese, arranged in a pinwheel on a white plate, had a refreshing brightness and crunch.
The braised short ribs were meltingly fork-tender, almost syrupy, and the accompanying baby carrots, cauliflower, and roasted rosemary fingerling potatoes made this an ideal winter dish. The sea scallop pasta—four seared, plump mollusks and buttery thick ribbons of pasta—was so good that Robin almost ordered it again at our second dinner, but was quite happy splitting a platter of house-made charcuterie (bresaola, lomo, and mortadella, with pine jelly, seeded mustard, wafer-thin crostini, and crisp apple and pear slices) and an amazing smoked burrata with wild mushrooms and black garlic. She also raided my plate for bites of the impeccable buttermilk biscuit, vinegary carrot-onion slaw, and meatiest sections of exquisite, sticky and unctuous baby back ribs.
Our only dessert, the banana-butterscotch roulade that came with the prix-fixe meal (though Kouchek generously served us two orders), was so heavenly as to open my sweets-averse mind to such other confections as a chocolate tower with butterscotch bourbon pudding, and port-poached apples with streusel and apple mousse.
The food was good enough to distract us from the wine for a moment or two. I promise it won’t happen again.
The Barrel Room
California-Mediterranean. 5330 College Ave., Oakland, 510-655-1700. Hours are 3 p.m till late daily. www.BarrelRoomOak.com. Snacks and sides $6-$22, small plates $8-$15, large plates $17-$25, desserts $9-$10, wine by the glass $12–$28, flights of three $15–$25, bottles $48–$112. CC Beer and Wine Only Takes Reservations Wheelchair Accessible $$-$$$