Barley & Board, a brewpub on Denton’s historic town square, is hip. It occupies the third incarnation of a building that burned and was rebuilt, only to burn again. The original space housed a hotel and a livery stable where Sam Bass once worked. And while the current space retains a sense of place and history, it does so while Modest Mouse plays overhead, as men with their hair in buns walk its halls.
The interior provides a brilliant display of leather and wood and steel, all softened by the multitudes of incandescent bulbs that hang overhead. A giant mural of a tiger fighting a bear adorns the rear dining area. The overall effect is beguiling, if not a little self-conscious. It’s a curated space where days can wind down and get started in equal measure.
About that getting started business: Barley & Board’s offerings, devised by executive chef Chad Kelley (Meddlesome Moth), include a small brunch menu on weekends. There are giant blueberry pancakes and a dried fruit and nut porridge for those craving something sweet, while the rest of the menu slants savory. A spongy, dry frittata was saved by the cluster of perfectly fried oysters nestled atop it. The smoked salmon, spinach and tomato relish scramble was none too shy on the salmon and satisfied without triggering that common post-brunch guilt.
The brunch crowd, while strong in number, did not compare to the turnout on a Friday night. Expect to wait for a table during Friday or Saturday dinner service. It proved to be far less crowded on weeknights, when it seems to be filled primarily with business types sinking further into their booths with every drink.
The cocktail menu is a curated collection of boozy creations like the Honey Hole (gin, honey, lemon) and the Sam Bass’ Bullet (bacon-infused rye, maple syrup, house bitters). They also have a small, in-house brewery which is expected to resume production in a month’s time, following upgrades to boost yield capacity. In the interim, there are plenty of interesting libations to be had, with 30 beers on tap and bottles to boot.
Soak up some of that alcohol with a few small plates from the dinner menu, starting with an order or two of wicked Gulf oysters. The oysters arrive atop a white bed of rock salt. Happily nested in steamy pools of garlic, butter and Parmesan, these oysters transport the eater — if only for a moment — to the delicious depths of the briny sea.
Next, order the roasted bone marrow. Some prefer it white, but at Barley & Board the marrow is served slightly pink and from the horizontally split bone. Slicked with pesto, a slather of this silky, fatty treat on toast sets the tone for a meal fit for a king — the bloated, useless, but well-fed kind.
Now to the large plates menu. An order of slow roasted pork tenderloin arrived perfectly cooked: three tournedos, far too pink to please a USDA inspector but perfectly rosy for those whose fear of trichinosis is secondary to the mouthfeel and taste of a blushing, tender bite of loin. The perfection ended there, however. The dish, a sort of take on elotes, surrounds the tournedos with kernels of grilled corn and a chipotle-infused honey before topping it all with fried onions. Gestalt this was not, for each merit-worthy component failed to mesh in the final dish.
An order of the brazen two-faced quail fared better thanks to a masterful hand at the fryer. This is not the dish to order to appreciate the subtle gaminess of quail, for here the meat serves primarily as a delivery system for crunch, spice and sweet. Coated in cayenne and brown sugar and fried until shatteringly crisp, these little birds pack a powerful punch of heat relieved only by the cool, sweet celery-seed studded slaw on the side.
As good as the quail was, diners would be remiss to not order the crisped mechada. Here the mechada, or pulled meat, is turned into a croquette of sorts. The beef is shaped and then dredged before being pan-fried until it earns its moniker of “crisped.” When cracked with a fork, the exterior gives way to succulent shreds of beef, which — don’t get me wrong — are heavenly, but the real star here is the surrounding calabrese sauce. The devil-red sauce deceives, for it is not hot so much as acidic, thanks to a mouth-puckering addition of lime. The acidic kick from the sauce, combined with the crispy-on-the-outside, tender-on-the-inside mechada — and yolk of an accompanying fried egg — creates a bite that is, in a word, transcendent. We’re talking The Beatles in India here, people.
But let us put meat aside for the moment and do as we are wont to do by embracing the carb. Barley & Board has two large plates to entice vegetarians and lovers of all things starchy alike: faro risotto and “Parisian” gnocchi. Our table tried the latter, and the results rivaled the mechada. Scratch that — the gnocchi transcended the transcendent mechada in what can only be described as an act of kindness from a potato dumpling-loving God. The pillowy dumplings, pan-fried until golden brown, are served scattered among an array of autumnal vegetables. Alternate bites of super light, creamy and tender dumplings with roasted butternut squash and carrot for a textural feast.
Entrées range from $15 (gnocchi, risotto) to $29 (hanger steak) per plate. The rest of the menu is dedicated to salads, soups, sandwiches and flatbreads, all of which are under $15. The grilled Cobb consists of a variety of grilled vegetables, cooled and marinated in an acidic dressing and served atop a bed of lightly dressed romaine. It’s crunchy and fresh, but short of those big flavors one comes to expect after the quail and the mechada. The salad came across a bit boring, save for bites blessed by the presence of shiitake “bacon.”
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Two items from the dessert menu punctuated our visits with a question mark rather than an exclamation point. A dacquoise filled with chocolate mousse, topped with ganache and a rosette of wine-poached pear — nice on paper — got lost in translation.
The apple crumb, with slices of apple swimming in lemon juice, provided variation on a theme, but like the dacquoise it lacked cohesion. Although the crumble topping offered some delights, a side of beaten goat cheese, crème anglaise and cranberry-orange coulis failed to complement one another, instead fighting for attention with every bite.
But let’s not end things on a sour note. While every dish at Barley & Board may not be perfect, there are enough big hits to make up for the near misses. In the quail and the mechada we saw examples of how Barley & Board excels at capturing a principle taste sensation — heat, acid — and wrangling it into a final dish that is both exciting and palatable. With these dishes, Barley & Board demonstrates that it’s more than the facade of a hip, ambitious restaurant. It is hip and ambitious. And really good.