The idea of a gastropub isn't exactly new. The trend, which began in New York during the recession, emerged when chefs coaxed diners back to the table with upscale comfort food (think lobster mac and cheese) and a raft of boutique beers on tap in casual surroundings at a moderate price.
Just as with skinny jeans and frozen yogurt, it took Northeast Ohio awhile to catch on. But when we did, it was thanks in part to one man: Demetrios Atheneos.
Back in 2010, he popularized the concept as the executive chef at Deagan's Kitchen & Bar in Lakewood, filling the menu with dishes such as Amish chicken and waffles, and shrimp tacos. But last year he shocked loyal customers when he left to open the Oak Barrel in the former Hoggy's space in Valley View.
Despite the overwhelming task of filling a 430-seat restaurant and the struggles we encountered with the quality of food and service, Atheneos is confident that his gastropub is the right restaurant for the times: He is on a mission to bring duck confit and gourmet tacos to the masses.
The Oak Barrel is the first in a string of upscale casual restaurants the chef envisions in Northeast Ohio. Less than a year after its opening, Atheneos and business partner Fady Chamoun, who owns the Aladdin's chain, are already scouting locations for a second restaurant.
"People still want to go out, but they don't want to spend $35 on an entree," Atheneos says. "What I've done here is more approachable."
Indeed, the Oak Barrel has a breathtaking array of beers and bourbons, elevated bar food and a casual but tasteful reimagining of a chain restaurant near the multiplex movie theater off Rockside Road.
Unfortunately, it also has indifferent service on occasion and a kitchen that makes too many mistakes. An entree of batter-fried walleye fingers ($17), for example, came to our table loaded with oil (it actually spurted) and without a grain of salt. The "toasted" cashews on a duck confit salad ($14) tasted straight from the can, and the naked mound of shredded, oil-poached duck atop the lush pile of greens was cold and unseasoned.
Despite the problems, we're rooting for the 10-month-old eatery because it is doing a lot right, too. Simply offering handcrafted food in the land of sports bars and chain restaurants is reason enough to rejoice. Kudos also go to the incredible locally sourced produce and meats. We give props, too, for the chewy, thin-crust pizzas and smoked meats produced in a wood-fired oven left by the previous tenant.
The prices also are appealing. Only a few of the entrees costs more than $20, and most of the menu is devoted to even-lower-priced sandwiches, burgers and tacos, including the chef's signature shrimp tacos.
At $4, duck fat popcorn with truffle oil and lime costs less than the mass-produced stuff at the theater next door. The portion is smaller but the flavors are brilliant.
Atheneos has tried to freshen the gastropub concept — typically, upscale tavern or pub food — by giving some of the dishes a French spin.
Duck confit shows up not only in the salad, but also in a rich mac 'n' cheese ($15). The chunky pomme frites are drizzled with truffle oil.
Some of the allusions to French cuisine are a stretch, though, such as the croque monsieur pizza ($14). Ours featured a thin crust with a pittance of Gruyere cheese welded to the surface, topped with fabulous little cubes of crispy-salty pork belly, a whole fried egg and a handful of arugula. It was alright, but not in the same zip code as its namesake.
The French accent fades slightly in a new menu introduced in August. Atheneos is concentrating now on house-smoked meats and house-made pates and sausages.
The menu has something for everyone: a decent selection of vegetarian and vegan items (the vegan pizza is topped with Killbuck Valley mushrooms), a kids' menu, and for the rest of us, approachable items such as fried chicken and waffles ($14 and $18) and a hamburger ($12) on toasted brioche with house-made pickles and heavenly, fennel-scented pickled onions.
The space, remodeled with stone, wood and a soaring two-story ceiling, is more than big enough to accommodate everyone. On our visits, the large dining room was never more than a third full, which Atheneos says is "probably our biggest challenge."
Better-trained servers might help — ones that can tell you what's on the Butcher's Plate ($13), for example. Our waitress shrugged and said she didn't know. An awkward pause stretched for a minute or so. Enlightenment dawned. She fetched the servers' cheat sheet and handed it to us.
For a chef noted for his attention to detail, Atheneos let a lot of errors slip by him. In a pork entree, mashed potatoes touted as containing spinach and leeks came without either addition. Several of the dishes were seriously under-seasoned.
The restaurant changed menus right after our first visit, which could explain the missing ingredients in some entrees. Other slip-ups, though, such as the lack of seasonings, are more difficult to understand.
Atheneos has a potential gem in the Oak Barrel. It's the right concept at the right time in virgin territory, with prices and a menu that should be attracting crowds. And we bet it will when the chef takes the time to do a little more polishing.