The story: The Barrel Room opened as a cozy wine bar and retail shop inside the Fitzgerald Hotel in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, and expanded into a food program when it opened a restaurant in Oakland’s Rockridge neighborhood with the concept of a regional menu changing every quarter. Earlier this year co-owners Sarah Trubnick and Carolyn Johnson decided to takeover the Financial District space of Georges Restaurant, closing its original Tenderloin spot. The new space opened almost a month ago with a 60-seat dining room and a next-door retail space that’ll open in three weeks.
Why I went: When Barrel Room first opened in Rockridge, I kept saying I would check it out since I live in that neighborhood. But I never got around to it, and recently I was invited by the Barrel Room to check out its new San Francisco space so I ended up going into the city instead of walking from my Oakland home. Luckily, the chef in Oakland, Manuel Hewitt, is supervising the menu development and kitchen in San Francisco so it’s like I’m trying the Oakland restaurant at the same time. Anywho, I brought my friend Kim along to taste some of Hewitt’s dishes and wine expertly paired by Trubnick.
The vibe: The new San Francisco Barrel Room maintains the layout of Georges, but has that wine bar feel with the wall of wine bottles in the back. Not surprisingly, there’s a happy hour feel being in the Financial District. It was a bit quiet on Monday night when we went, but it could be because it’s a Monday night or that Barrel Room is still trying to find a following at its new spot.
The menu: Trubnick and Johnson have brought the changing menu from Oakland to San Francisco, with the menu focused on a particular country or region every quarterly. Currently the focus is Latin America, so the menu included things like chimichurri, croquetas, and ceviche. I was amazed at the authenticity of the flavors since Latin American cuisine isn’t Chef Hewitt’s speciality (he leans more toward Italian), but he was able to pick up the inspiration, such as the ostiones al pil-pil, or sea scallops with serrano and cachaca chilies ($18) that had a nice heat in the sauce, or the ahi tuna ceviche ($18) with an added kick from passion fruit (pictured at the top of this page). Because I’m not a fan of red meat, I avoided the two large plate offerings that were both meat (the tri-tip with gingered chimichurri and the Niman Ranch ribeye with ancho chili salsa), but I did try the seared pork belly ($16) that had the perfect crispy edge surrounding the tender belly and fat, served up with a blistered padron pepper. Pretty much every dish we tried were bold and nicely cooked.
The booze: While I was impressed by the food, it was enhanced by the wine Trubnick paired for us. Because of the Latin focus, many of the wine we tried were from Chile, including a lovely natural wine from Elqui Valley from Mayou, made with a grape called pedro ximinez. It was a nice starter. We also tried a couple of Lafken Winery wine from Casablanca Valley in Chile, and ended the evening with a late harvest Malbec from the Mendoza region of Argentina. I never thought of Malbec as a pairing for dessert, but the Malbec (similar to Cabernet Sauvignon) had the intensity of a Cab but was also sweet, which made it a perfect foil to the Mexican chocolate cake we had for dessert.
My favorite dish: I really enjoyed the heat on the ostiones al pil-pil (the scallops) because the chili flavor was bright and different than others I’ve had in the past. And I always enjoy a dish that surprises me. The tuna ceviche came a close second because of the use of passion fruit.
The last bite: Barrel Room is a serious wine bar that is putting out outstanding food with perfect wine pairings. The quarterly changing menu is almost like discovering a new restaurant every few months, but in the same familiar and friendly space. Now that I’ve got a taste of Chef Hewitt’s food and Trubnick’s pairings, I’m definitely going to try the Oakland location soon.
Thanks to the Barrel Room for the dinner and to Trubnick for a wonderful education on Chilean wine.
The rating: 3 out of 4 camera snaps
The deets: The Barrel Room, 415 Sansome St. (at Commercial), San Francisco. PH: 415.956.6900. Open weekday lunch, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner Monday through Saturday, 5 to 10:30 p.m.; and weekday happy hour, 4 to 5:30 p.m. Reservations for large parties only. Major credit cards accepted. barrelroomsf.com
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