Carla Meyer

Dining review: At Cask & Barrel, there’s beauty with the beef

At Cask & Barrel, the North Carolina blue prawns ($12) are served with a white buttermilk sauce dotted by bits of green nasturtium sauce.
At Cask & Barrel, the North Carolina blue prawns ($12) are served with a white buttermilk sauce dotted by bits of green nasturtium sauce. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Chef Gabriel Glasier creates art at Cask & Barrel, selling most pieces for $16 or less.

Equating food with art is tricky, given food’s transitory nature. No matter how well sculpted it is, food vanishes when eaten. You can’t visit it at a museum, or put it on a bookshelf for future reference. (Well you could, but it would be gross).

Adding to this trickiness is the close link between artfully arranged dishes and commerce. Great presentation too often entails correspondingly high prices.

Cask & Barrel, a 40-seat, white-tablecloth, quasi-barbecue restaurant that occupies the bar area of the former Enotria restaurant, eradicates all doubts about food’s artistic value by emphasizing both words in that phrase.

Its dishes do not seem transitory. They wedge themselves into memory. You will think often of the meats’ tenderness, of the appetizers’ visual allure and of the local, seasonal ingredients Glasier uses. You will think of these things because nearly every restaurant you visit after this one will seem expensive by comparison.

Glasier and his pastry-chef fiancée, Kristel Flores, run the 4-month-old bar/restaurant, as well as a special events business and a catering company, out of the Del Paso Boulevard building that once held Enotria, which was known for a deep wine list and Michelin-star ambitions before it closed in 2014.

Cask & Barrel retains Enotria’s culinary ambitions and many of its wines while toning down its fine-dining sensibility. Glasier has introduced down-home elements (smoked meats, an emphasis on whiskey) and those down-to-earth prices, which in some instances ($10 smoked pork rillettes, $8 mac ’n’ cheese) are so low they are hard to fathom.

Glasier said he learned, from stints at Maranello Bar & Kitchen and Slocum House in Fair Oaks, and the first restaurant he owned, the Redbud Café in Cameron Park – all now closed – that smaller is better. Cask & Barrel, which occupies only the bar area and a small patio at the building’s front, employs five people apart from Glasier and Flores. Keeping the operation small allows them to pass on savings to the diner.

Work for the kitchen staff (Glasier and two other chefs) is planning-intensive, because of the meats’ long cook times. Glasier smokes meats for seven hours at low temperatures, then cooks them sous vide (bagged and in a water bath) for at least 50 more hours. He finishes by tossing the meat on the grill briefly to crisp it up.

The low and slow process helps retain flavor, Glasier said. The brisket ($13 for a half-order) proves his point. It tastes almost shockingly beefy. That a brisket would be beefy might seem a given, but so many are just smoke and dryness.

Cask & Barrel’s lamb shoulder ($16 for a half-portion) is the most tender, least gamey lamb I’ve tasted. Considering how hearty the half-portions are (full portions are $22 for brisket, $29 for lamb), and that they arrive with loads of crisp, pickled vegetables such as wax beans and okra, Cask & Barrel’s meats also are reasonably priced. The pork ribs ($13, $24), which tasted too salty when I tried them, were the lone disappointment on the “smoke” menu.

People expect a restaurant specializing in smoked meats to serve good meat at fair prices. Less expected is one that serves sophisticated, elaborate appetizers and sides at rock-bottom prices.

Glasier’s version of the Gold Rush classic “Hangtown fry” ($10) contains the requisite oysters and an egg, both fresh-tasting. Then he adds flavorful flourish with slim bacon “noodles” and red-pepper “glass,” the latter formed into sheets via corn starch and a dehydration process.

Glasier, like just about every restaurateur in 2015, shies away from the term “molecular gastronomy.” He does use a blow torch and a dehydrator, but says modernist techniques are just one tool in his bag.

His Hangtown fry’s most memorable ingredient, a highly satisfying broth, tastes classic rather than modernist. Its slight sweetness unifies the dish’s disparate ingredients into a hearty whole.

The North Carolina blue prawns ($12), served on a black plate with a color-contrasting white buttermilk sauce dotted by bits of green nasturtium sauce, look so good you will hesitate to dive in. For about a half-second. The pickled shrimp carry a welcome, vinegary bite, but sauces rule this prawn dish. There’s the rhubarb cocktail sauce that offers a cooler alternative to tomato-based relishes, and that buttermilk sauce, which tastes like a classier version of ranch dressing. After consuming the prawns and the pieces of avocado on the plate, one looks for more conduits for the buttermilk sauce. But I don’t advise eating the tempura shrimp heads because they taste like what they are: less-edible parts of a bottom feeder.

Glasier pulls out the presentation stops for the smoked pork rillettes ($10), topping the pâté with salmon roe, cooked quail eggs and pickled vegetables. He incorporates the pâté’s fattier elements so well that all bumps are eliminated. But the fat’s still there, lending the well-seasoned rillettes such richness that three people could easily share.

There’s also plenty of filling in the duck liver mousse beignets ($8), but they tasted under-seasoned. They lacked enough sharpness to counter the sweetness of an accompanying nectarine and strawberry jam.

Those seeking more traditional barbecue-joint dishes can revel in Cask & Barrel’s mac ’n’ cheese ($8). It’s made with sharp cheddar, wheat beer and bacon crumbles, and it tastes equally of all those things. This Super Bowl-party-in-a-skillet costs $8 and easily serves three.

As with many bargain spots, there are trade-offs at Cask & Barrel. Because the restaurant uses only a small part of the Enotria building, dining here can evoke those junior high parties where the parents made everyone stay in the den.

But an exceptionally attentive staff compensates in large part for the space’s imperfect ambiance. The servers remember names of return guests, many of whom come from the nearby Woodlake neighborhood. Glasier visits tables, explaining dishes in detail.

Even if Cask & Barrel grows busier, Glasier said he will not change his 40-seat model. Here’s hoping that’s true. For me, Cask & Barrel has ruined that other restaurant model – the one charging a lot for quality ingredients and pretty presentation. It needs to stay as is.

Cask & Barrel

1431 Del Paso Blvd.

916) 922-6792

caskandbarrel916.com

  • Hours: 4:30-9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday. Reservations are required for parties of six or more.
  • Beverage options: Deep wine list; draft and bottled beers; barrel-aged cocktails; 60 whiskeys.
  • Vegetarian friendly: Not really. It’s a very meat-based restaurant.
  • Gluten-free option: Yes
  • Noise level: Quiet
  • Ambiance: Cask & Barrel looks much the same as when it was the Enotria wine bar, though it now has a wooden communal table held up by old wine barrels. Not paying for redecorating might help chef Gabriel Glasier keep menu prices so reasonable.

Overall 1/2

Though the restaurant’s setup is unusual, the food is special in taste and appearance, and the service is exceptionally attentive. And finding a better value in Sacramento would be difficult.

Food 1/2

The smoked pork rillettes and Hangtown fry are hearty dishes with elaborate, lovely (flavor- and looks-wise) flourishes. The brisket is full of flavor and the lamb exceptionally tender. The mac ’n’ cheese, made with beer, tastes like a Super Bowl party in a skillet. But the duck-liver mousse beignets tasted underseasoned, and the ribs overly salty.

Service

The attentive servers remember return guests’ names, and are solicitous without being intrusive.

Value

Prices for some dishes are remarkably low, considering their high quality.

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