Kansas City’s culinary identity has never been defined by geographical location. Though we are almost squarely in the middle of the country, that hasn’t stopped some pundits from suggesting our food leans toward the cooking styles of Georgia, Louisiana or the Carolinas.
In 2015, you are likely to find burnt ends and KC strips sharing the page with the likes of pimento cheese and red-eye gravy. Barrel 31, which opened more than a year ago in the heart of the Martini Corner district, features just such a meaty, whiskey-centric food menu.
Since its days as the Velvet Dog, the space has been renovated with a smart, modern, urban style of light woods and dark iron fixtures. Decorations lean toward the minimal, with small touches, like little iron men rappelling down the exposed brick walls of the dining room and supernova-like iron chandeliers.
The space also has a huge back patio area with bar and amusements that seems ideal for drinks and conversation on summer evenings.
Many of the appetizers and burger selections on the menu showcased the best of the kitchen’s offerings, but other items failed to impress. Eating at Barrel 31 can feel like watching a film adapted from a book, where not everything on the page translates to what shows up on screen. In this case, what’s on the menu doesn’t always translate to the plate.
For starters, the smoked duck poutine sounded delightful on the menu. But good poutine is about balance among the fries, gravy and cheese curds. On our order, the fries were neither crisp nor hot, and they were literally swimming in a gravy that tasted little of smoke and duck. There was but a tiny amount, if any, duck meat, and one dining companion noted that it tasted mostly like your standard pot roast gravy.
More successful was the rich smoked Gouda and ale fondue served with house-made kettle chips and some very good long, tear drop-shaped Bavarian pretzels that were pleasingly delicate and fluffy. Those same medium-cut kettle chips work much better as the base for the popular pub nachos, a smorgasbord of a bowl featuring that fondue and toppings including bacon, bourbon bratwurst, blue cheese, jalapeno cream cheese and scallions.
The thicker chip stands up to the mountainous toppings, allowing individual chips to be pulled from the cheesy, meaty mass. Best to eat them while they are hot, as the chips lose their crispy vigor as they sit.
We also ordered the fried green tomatoes to share, and they were undoubtedly a hit. A good fried green tomato is about as Southern as it gets, and this version was sublime, with thin-cut green tomato in a light breading, fried crisp and topped with Barrel 31’s house-made green goddess dressing and delightful little pearls of pickled mustard seed “caviar.”
The herb-laden dressing was subtle and had a creamy consistency that complemented the crisp coating and juicy green tomato. The mustard seed brought a nice acidic, slightly bitter tone to finish each bite. It isn’t often I would say a fried dish has finesse, but this fits that billing.
On another visit, I started with an order of the very popular deviled oysters, which I had been advised to try by multiple people. Served on a wooden plank, the four deviled eggs are topped with a leafy green, a shard of bacon and a fried oyster.
The first bite somehow both glides and crunches in the mouth, with the smoke and fat of the bacon hitting first, before the briny oyster flavor washes over it. The crunchy coating on the oyster was vaguely reminiscent of one you might find on traditional fried chicken. The egg plays more of a textural supporting role, a launching pad for more pronounced flavors to stand on.
Another standout was the titular Barrel 31 burger featuring the restaurant’s own burger grind, topped with a thick chunk of 12-hour braised pork belly, fried egg, havarti cheese, whiskey-braised onions and house sauce.
Each component of the burger works with the next as pork belly, egg and havarti bring rich flavors to play off the earthy, tart whiskey-braised onions and beefy burger. The Southern gentleman of burgers, it plays host to still more iconic flavors on the bun: pimento cheese, green tomato relish and mustard greens.
Chef Eric Carter, who took over the kitchen earlier this year after serving as executive chef at the President Hotel’s Providence New American Kitchen, has recently added a new summer menu.
The chicken and waffle appetizer is right in line with the Southern theme: sweet, savory and spicy flavors come from fried bits of chicken, crunchy chicken skin and Fresno chili caramel sauce atop individual waffles. The mix of vivid flavors and slight heat works well together, and the dish is strong enough to pair with a stiff drink or two.
A new entree is the sweet tea-braised pork belly and pimento cheese grits with bourbon reduction, which replaced the popular 12-hour braised pork belly noodle dish. I was sad to see that one go, as the unctuous bowl of belly, soft-cooked egg and scallion on thick noodles and broth was easily my favorite of any entree, although I’ll grant the change is more in line with the Southern theme.
The new dish is a richer affair, with the pork belly braised in sweet tea and served alongside a substantial mound of grits infused with pimento cheese. The sweet tea and bourbon have a sweetness that interplays with the pork belly’s varying layers of fat and flesh. The pimento cheese grits sing familiar Southern notes, indulgent but restrained, that help tie the dish together.
Carter’s version of fish and chips is new for the summer as well. He uses crunchy battered nuggets of grouper in lieu of the standard long strips of cod, and the crispy, golden brown crust yields very juicy morsels of the white-fleshed grouper.
It appears the dish may still be undergoing changes, as ingredients listed on the menu, such as grilled lemon, remoulade and Brussels sprouts slaw, didn’t show up on the plate our table was served. The grilled lemon in particular would probably provide the kick of acid that malt vinegar gives the traditional version and was sadly missing from the one I tried. By the time a side of remoulade finally arrived, the fish was already nearly gone.
There were a couple other details of service that weren’t quite on point at times as well, aside from missing ingredients. One evening, our table had barely finished our entrees before our admittedly busy server cleared our plates and dropped off the check. It was obvious she was going off shift, but we didn’t have time to even contemplate, nor were we asked, if we were interested in dessert or drinks.
Ultimately, Barrel 31 makes for a nice, modern setting to enjoy any of the vast array of whiskeys. If hunger comes calling after the second or third drink, there’s a decent selection of Southern-inspired pub fare to answer.
To reach freelance restaurant critic Tyler Fox, send email to email@example.com.
400 E. 31st St.
Hours: 11 a.m.-midnight Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Friday, 10 a.m.-2 a.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday.
Food: ☆☆ Solid, Southern-influenced menu has a handful of appetizers and burgers that pair well with diverse drink menu and whiskey bar concept.
Atmosphere: ☆☆1/2 Exposed brick and smart, modern design give a rustic urban chic vibe with large, lively outdoor patio and bar area ideal for drinks or a night out with friends.
Service: ☆☆ Service can be inconsistent and slow at busier times, though servers are generally attentive. Be advised, the kitchen switches to a small bar menu later in the evening if you are looking for a full meal.
Entrée average: $$
Vegetarian options: Gouda and ale fondue, fried green tomatoes, salads, sides like beet home fries, Brussels sprouts and fries.
Kids: No separate kids menu. Appetizer menu has sharable options, but restaurant and menu geared more toward adults.
Parking: Lot on the side of building
Handicap accessible: Yes
Noise level: Medium to high
Star code: ☆ Fair, ☆☆ Good, ☆☆☆ Excellent, ☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary
Price code: $ Average entree under $10; $$ under $20; $$$ under $30; $$$$ over $30.
Code of ethics: Starred reviews are written after a minimum of two visits to a restaurant. When required, reservations are made in a name other than the reviewer’s. The Star pays for review meals.
What to drink
The barrel in the Barrel 31 title refers to the vessels in which whiskey is aged, and Barrel 31 has a wide-ranging menu of bourbon, rye, scotch and blended whiskeys to choose from, in addition to wines and a decent beer menu.
Whether you’re into long-aged single malt scotch or delicious American elixirs like bourbon or rye, there is something to satiate just about any taste. Try a boilermaker (a whiskey and beer concoction) or a hand-picked whiskey flight to pair with some of the savory, meaty appetizers.
Hit happy hour for good deals on drinks and bites to sample and share.
Chicken and waffles $11
Pub nachos, $8.50
Deviled oysters, $10
Fried green tomato, $7
Barrel 31 burger, $11
Sweet tea-braised pork belly, $16