If you eat at enough restaurants, you learn to spot the clues that indicate there’s a passionate heart beating in the kitchen. The brunch menu at Barrel is such a clue. It’s not your typical survey of Sunday-morning staples — omelets, hashes, Benedicts and pancakes, the kind of stuff that a B-grade line cook could crank out while hung over and talking on his phone.
This menu is packed with modest ambitions, some just clever riffs on dinner plates: a croque madame with a crab Mornay sauce, tagliatelle alla carbonara, cauliflower migas and house-cured bacon. Even the drinks attempt to break up the monopoly that mimosas and bloody marys have on brunch tippling (though, I should note, both of those standard sips appear on the menu, too). There’s a concoction dubbed, with a nod to beleaguered office workers everywhere, Coffee Is For Closers. It’s a chilled Irish variation, a little sweet and creamy, prepared with demerara syrup, orange bitters and nitro cold brew. It’s a cool head nod to Bloody Mary’s stink eye.
As I devour a tasty if untraditional Cuban sandwich for my Sunday morning repast, I can’t help but admire the kitchen’s willingness to reject the orthodoxy of brunch, the service where legions of sleepy customers readily accept, maybe even desire, the ordinary. Such rejection takes more than moxie. It takes faith in your weekend crew to execute the food. Who, I wondered, is the chef behind Barrel?
Turns out, it’s Walfer Hernandez, a cook you won’t find on anyone’s best-of lists — not yet. He’s a native of Guatemala who learned his craft at his mother’s side before finding work at delis and cafeterias around Washington. When Barrel debuted in 2014 on Capitol Hill, Hernandez worked under Garret Fleming, a classically trained chef who may be (regrettably) best known for smack-talking Mike Isabella’s food on “Top Chef” before making an early exit from the show. (Isabella tweeted “karma is a b----” at Fleming as the chef was told to pack his knives.)
The pettiness of reality TV aside, Fleming served as a mentor to Hernandez, grounding him in technique, building up his chops and even leaving him with some recipes. Still, when Fleming said his goodbyes to Barrel in 2016, co-owner Matt Weiss and his partners didn’t immediately turn to Hernandez to lead the kitchen. They instead selected Michael Ellish, a New Orleans native who was initially enticed to Washington to work as executive sous-chef at Shaw Bijou but never made it to opening day at Kwame Onwuachi’s ill-fated restaurant. Ellish didn’t survive long at Barrel, either. He apparently didn’t mesh with the cooks in the kitchen, a common problem with outside chefs asked to lead a seasoned crew.
It’s hard to fault Weiss and his partners — Mike Schuster and Mark Menard — for looking past Hernandez when Fleming departed. The dining public is a fickle beast, prone to trend mongering and following chefs with a perceived pedigree. In this market, where competition is fierce, restaurateurs will seek whatever advantage they can. Plus, as Weiss pointed out, Hernandez was an unknown commodity as executive chef. Could he lead? Could he develop a menu?
The answer to both those questions is yes. Almost two years at the helm now, Hernandez produces one of the best pub menus in Washington. On a dining scene often run by Central American line cooks, it’s a beautiful thing to see one promoted to executive chef — and then flourish. It’s the American Dream, one too seldom realized by Latin American cooks in fashionable restaurants.
The best way to experience Hernandez’s talent is to order his braised short rib, a giant bone whose gelatinous meat has all but surrendered to the cause. Take a forkful and let it coat your tongue, so you can appreciate the patience it takes for a cook to reduce collagen, fat and connective tissue to this level of butteriness. The rib is really more like a family-style platter, one that comes with small jars of beans, red-cabbage slaw, greens and a browned-and-gooey mac and cheese, the kind that reminds you how good the dish can be in experienced hands.
Hernandez’s crew can handle anything he throws at them. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say the housemade and house-smoked andouille sausage, paired with red beans and rice, would be right at home in New Orleans. The fried chicken features two butterflied and buttermilk-brined thighs, each puffed up like a parka with a thick golden coating. Served with red-eyed gravy and an apple-bacon marmalade, the chicken would pass inspection in any Southern kitchen. And although Hernandez’s Italian carbonara borrows a technique from David Chang — the Momofuku chef’s foolproof five-minute, 10-second method for soft-boiled eggs — I don’t think anyone will complain when they dig into this exquisite bowl of tagliatelle with house-smoked bacon.
The kitchen has a way of making you pay attention to even the most tiresome plates. Brussels sprouts, a dish seen more often than the Fiji water girl at the Golden Globes, benefits from the yin-yang of fish sauce and honey, yet owes much of its pleasure to the kitchen’s heat treatment, which removes any hint of woodiness from the vegetable. The skin-on fries are salty, hot and exceptional. Even the crab rangoon, that awkward Chinese-American amalgam practically left for dead with the rise of regional Chinese cooking, gets resurrected here with real crab meat and a spicy duck sauce. I ordered it twice.
Barrel has its faults, but they’re few. On the weekend, it gets lawn-mower-loud in there, as the equal-opportunity sound system blasts tunes from Kanye West, Weezer and Nancy Sinatra against the exposed brick walls and hardwood surfaces of the place. One or two of beverage director Jacob Schoonover’s barrel-aged cocktails can miss their mark, like the negroni prepared with cherry bitters, an addition that throws off the drink’s gymnastic balance. I was also befuddled by Barrel’s take on a gyro platter: It’s a deconstructed dish that, like Humpty Dumpty, can never quite be made whole. There are also, I’d say, precious few dishes that cater to vegetarians.
When he first opened Barrel, Weiss wanted to build a Southern bourbon bar, like the kind he’s loved in Charleston, S.C., with lots of great whiskey and refined-but-unpretentious food. He’s done exactly that, and he’s doing it with a chef that few could ever name — until now, I hope.
613 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, 202-543-3622, barreldc.com.
Hours: 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Monday through Thursday; 4 p.m. to 3 a.m. Friday; 10:30 a.m. to 3 a.m. Saturday; 10:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. Sunday.
Nearest Metro: Eastern Market, with a short walk to the tavern.
Prices: $8 to $15 for appetizers; $14 to $31 for entrees and pastas.