There are all sorts of clichés about how hard it is to have kids and have a real life. At times the feeling I get is that people want to hear the worst stories we have about raising our “two under 2,” aka our Irish Twins. You know, the screaming, the tantrums, the “esplosions” in the diapers, lack of sleep, etc. and even more etc. To me, that misses the point on a lot of the fun stuff, in particular watching them grow up and learn to explore around them. Our youngest has been taking (ahem) baby steps for a while now, for example, but then just last week started on an exponential learning curve where one day it was two steps, the next day three, then 10, then halfway across the room, then all the way to the Christmas tree and back, and so on. Even with wonderful memories such as that, I will readily admit that after a certain point (say, 9 months) that babies and restaurants just do not mix. I can’t tolerate other people’s screaming children when I’m out, and my own stress me out to the point that we’ve basically called off such endeavors until they’re of legal drinking age. That is where the babysitter comes in!
A few months back, or only after our oldest had turned 21 months old, did we finally hire a night-time babysitter. While some friends and family had helped out so we could have an occasional date night that was mainly for birthdays, anniversaries, and Valentine’s Day…in other words, not very often. With our new babysitter we were suddenly overwhelmed with possibilities for our first excursion, so I spent the better part of two days scanning all across the area for a place where we hadn’t been but which had: a) good appetizers, b) good burgers/steaks, and c) a good craft beer menu, of course! I had remembered Barrel & Bushel from having taken the babies to the mall a few weeks prior and having seen the finished expansion of Tysons I for the first time, but admittedly I confused the name with Fig & Olive and almost didn’t find the place again until I just went to Google Maps and zoomed in until I could click on it. And man, am I glad I did. Sparing (most of) the superlatives for further reading below, I was so impressed that I quickly went back again. You know how these things start…one guy tells another guy something, and then he tells two friends…and they tell their friends, and so on, and so on…
Barrel & Bushel, Tysons Corner, VA
This is, simply, the best set of permanent and rotating draughts in the Northern Virginia region. With 25 total taps split between about 18 stalwarts and seven occasionals/seasonals, Barrel & Bushel (B&B) has covered everything from Baltimore to Frederick, DC, the 757, RVA, NOVA, and on down into SWVA. The most important aspect, however, is that every single one of the draughts represents a craft beer that was made locally and thanks to the hard work of the beer director, consumed locally. I know that many beer drinkers aren’t as snobbish as I am when it comes to the whole eat/drink local motto, but the Commonwealth is making its presence known on the national beer scene. That Stone, New Belgium, and Green Flash will be producing locally in the near future is moot; the beers that we have in Virginia (and nearby) stand toe-to-toe with such heavyweights every year, and every year VA brings home the hardware. As with my wine, in any blind taste test I simply seem to prefer the terroir and recipes of this region, so beverage menus such as this are almost overwhelming in their scope and complexity. I have 25 local beers to choose from!!! But…which one?!
I also dig the tap system they’re using, which is exposed and “disguised” as faux duct work. The one drawback to this approach is that you can only ever see half of the taps from any one vantage point, but this is a pretty minor observation given that unless you’re rocking some 20/10 eagle eyed vision you’re likely not able to espy the varying tap handles from across your typically dim lit bar environment. Given my own keg lines at home, it must take a fair amount of pressure to clean those lines, though… Wait, are these oversize pours? 20 oz. for normal ABV, and 14 oz. for high ABV? Squirrel!!!
Through my visits to date, I’ve sipped on suds from Port City, Ocelot, Hardywood, Flying Dog, Lost Rhino, Fair Winds, Lickinghole Creek, South St., and (3) Brothers, all on draught. This is before one even gets to the bottle list, which is also constantly changing. Here is where you’ll get some of the medium-to-large national brands, and it’s where for the first time I sipped on Small Town’s Not Your Father’s Root Beer. That stuff is downright dangerous, which is why I had to be good and switch back to actual beer (on draught and local, of course). The point of this Drink Local tangent is that with so many great beers being made locally, it’s not always easy to venture 45 minutes to a taproom to check out the newest brews…but when local establishments make a point of featuring local producers, it allows you to better discover the spots which for whatever reason – day job, deadbeat friends, babies – you simply can’t get to. Without this sort of dedication, for instance, I wouldn’t have tasted the great new Pilsner that Ocelot came out with recently, which actually caused me to head back down there for a tasting/purchase of some of their sixtels. That’s not an easy hike for me to make these days, but being able to sample Ocelot closer to home made me know that I should make the effort. When you can already buy bottles of Fat Tire, Allagash White, or All Day IPA at your local grocery store (or bottle shop, to say the least) what is the point of ordering them at a restaurant? We eat out to munch on items we don’t normally get at home, so why don’t we treat beer the same way? There are thousands upon thousands of craft beers in the country, so save the bottles for your fridge, and have a pint of something local. Places like B&B allow you to do so, and then some. 10 of 10
Despite some overlap between the brunch/lunch and dinner menus, it’s a different experience. There’s also a big divide between what seems a reasonable solo portion for a (gluttonous) lunch and a “shareable” plate for a group of four. What I mean here is: what seems HUGE for a quick working lunch may be more reasonable when sharing among a group of friends, but also vice versa.
Chorizo Sliders – The first item we sampled at B&B, and among the best of the appetizers. Topped with a meaty slice of grilled pepper, there is some decent heat to be had for sure, but at the same time the avocado hiding next to the bun goes to great lengths to cool things down. The buns were quite excellent too, fleshy and full but without dominating the palate. This was an appetizer that seemed great for two people but then awkward for two couples, as the three sliders were not easy to cut up. This shouldn’t be taken as an indictment of what’s a standard trend in presenting a trio of sliders, but rather a plea to make sure you get a full slider if you find yourself with three other famished souls. Unlike many slider recipes I don’t think of this as a lazy mini-burger, as the rich flavors and delicate balance could easily come undone with larger portions. That said, a half pound of chorizo with a half of a pepper plastered on top would make quite the attention grabber both at the table and in the bathroom stall the next morning, wouldn’t it? 8.5 of 10
72 Hour Pork Belly Bites – 72 hours (and change) to make, and seconds to consume. These succulent little treats didn’t stand a chance, both as an indicator with the current American obsession with all things bacon as well as with the amazing variety in which chefs can present this particular cut of meat. This one is great no matter the number of guests in your party, and on the occasion in this photo I devoured them all with such gusto that I later realized I may need to move up my next cardiologist appointment. You’ll see why quickly as the maple glaze provides a nice foil to your initial bite, which is largely meaty and fat free…for a reason. The chefs have done us all a favor by presenting the bite in such a way that the lower half (being that which you’ll gnaw on first) breaks away from the fatty upper half. Don’t allow their heart-healthy conscience to rule the day, however; the coronary-inducing upper half is so packed with rich, smoky flavors you’ll think you’d tapped a spigot directly into an old growth Vermont Maple tree. 8.0 of 10
Burgers – At the time we first visited B&B, they only featured one burger, a “pub” version with a stout marmalade consisting of lots of onions (which are not among my favorite veggies). My wife enjoyed the heck out of it to the point that on subsequent visits I sampled it as well, and they’ve since added a pimento cheese burger. In both cases, the burgers are braised and quite juicy, with those great buns soaking up tons of flavor. When I tried it, I found the pub burger to be decent except that the texture from the onions was a bit of a buzzkill (though most may not mind it). The pimento cheese, however, which is also shared by a few other dishes, is a game changer. Vegetarians be forewarned as our version of the cheese had flecks of bacon in it, but we’d put that (stuff) on everything – and have. Both burgers can also be a mess, but those are the best kind, right? 7.0 of 10
Steaks and Main Courses – The reason why I first settled on B&B as a retreat from the babies, I was initially torn between a ribeye and dry-aged strip loin. While the cost of the latter seemed an initial deterrent, I trusted the recommendation for the 12 oz. strip loin and was rewarded with the best steak I’ve had in at least two or more years. When I compare steaks in NOVA, it’s to two (and only two) joints: Ray’s The Steaks and The Prime Rib. Those two are exclusive in their cuts, so for a non-prime rib you need to match up to Ray’s (particularly if you’re charging a premium as B&B does). Not only was my steak cooked perfectly, but the oil and aioli which had so concerned proved to complement the dry-aging process much the same way that Ray’s diablo style does their larger cuts. It’s easy for me to recommend the dry-aged strip loin, though the price may put it out of reach for some.
On our most recent visit, I opted for the stout rib, which is essentially the biggest short rib you’ve ever seen nestled on top of their goodly portion of tater tots – including the requisite cheese sauce and jalapeños. The meat has already been carved from the bone, so it is easily set aside. I found that the peppers paired better with the tots than the meat, but the cheese sauce is a great equalizer among all the varying ingredients. After seeing my initial reaction, my guests protested at the slowness with which I doled out some samples. The spare ribs are fall apart tender, as expected, and even cooked to about medium the meat still retained enough flavor to succeed without any of the other ingredients. I didn’t get a lot of stout flavor, but will say that I paired this with a South St. Anastasia, so any subtleties in the rib may have been lost.
Both entrées are more than worth the price of admission, and other possibilities such as the chili mac and prime rib stew ensure we’ll keep coming back. 9.0 of 10
Brunch – At first it may seem strange that a watering hole may specialize in brunch, but B&B is nestled at an interesting junction at the new Tysons I between the lobby of the Hyatt and the outdoor plaza (which shares several other restaurants). The hotel setting makes sense to include fare for the working traveler, whether that be early morning or the aforementioned working lunch as the plaza is a decent constitutional from a good number of corporate HQs. For my own part, I stopped by on a few days off from work to focus on Christmas shopping and laugh at how all the rain and the run of warm weather had melted the ice skating rink which dominated the plaza for the season. Oh, and eat some good food.
The first brunch course I sampled was the hot fried chicken, which is outrageous in terms of flavor and portion. I mean, LOOK AT THAT THING. Just who is this portion targeted towards? A hungover 600 pound gourmet chef? The only thing that doesn’t work is the pickles, which do well on their own but don’t make much sense as a garnish. The sweet butter earns a shake of the head even as you whisk it about the edges of the French toast – unnecessary, in other words, but very much appreciated. The touted B&B sauce is at once zesty but also savory, and the breading while loose allows the (just cooked enough) chicken meat to stand on its own. I’m not sure the toast presentation adds a whole lot, but the one aspect which truly detracts is the cut of chicken. Understanding that chicken isn’t always a well-cleaned (as in skinned and boned) breast, it’s still off-putting to chomp down on bits of cartilage and bone without fair warning. I’m also not sure it’s not too far out of line to ask that the chicken be cleaned a bit better to remove those bits, especially considering that this occurred on my original portion and when other guests ordered the dish on an entirely different visit. I did like the dish a lot even with this obstacle.
On another visit, I spotted a new dish which isn’t listed online in a pulled pork eggs benedict with biscuits in lieu of an English muffin. If you know anything about your brunch, you may recall that the typical recipe calls for ham, and I’ve also seen Canadian bacon utilized, so this variation was a pleasant surprise. Already a twist on their original version of a grilled cheese/eggs Benedict, I found this recipe a pleasant diversion while still hitting all the necessary high notes. The poached eggs maintained their form and texture even after the dish had cooled down, the yolks runny and the whites fluffy where in lesser hands the egg may have long before congealed. The pork worked well across all the accompanying ingredients – biscuit, eggs, sauce – whereas in the normal recipe I find the ham a lesser vessel for soaking up the varying textures. I’m also never going back to an English muffin again; the flaky and buttery biscuit is so much better suited to this kind of dish that I’m shocked that more chefs haven’t realized it’s superiority. During the meal my friend, a vegetarian, could not stop gushing over the craftsmanship that went into this dish. On his behalf and my own, kudos to the chef. 8.5 of 10
Atmosphere and Service
The last time you visited a brewpub was probably not the only time you saw the architectural design trend that is exposed venting and an overall warehouse feel. Luckily, Barrel & Bushel eschews this approach for warm wood.
The resulting layout has five seating options: outdoor patio, bar, communal tables, traditional seating, and a private section. Having experienced the bar, communal tables, and traditional seating across multiple times of day, the only option to me which hasn’t worked so far is the communal tables. While understanding the need to have expanded capacity for large groups, it’s a bit annoying to share elbow room (and conversations) when the high ceilings already allow for increased decibel levels. And yes, as with most (scientifically researched) layouts, the volume in B&B during peak hours is a cacophonous roar. Great for the restaurant’s bottom line, but I do suggest you request a quieter section if it’s available. This only happened once, however.
The service was also hit-or-miss, and I suspect this is due as much to the frequently changing menu (both food and drink). I don’t expect the servers to know every beer at some deep level, but it was frustrating to try to find out the rotating draughts – a blackboard would be really helpful in this regard. On all but one visit we also had one hiccough or another, be it long gaps in server visits, dirty plates/utensils, confusion among the staff, and even a chipped glass served with a beverage. The latter is the one that’s hardest for me to forgive, but what I did notice on that particular visit is that many servers were multi-tasking and always in a seeming constant rush. From experience that can make it hard to give the necessary attention to detail that can be needed, but when that one small slip can result in injury to a customer then it’s an area which needs additional work, period.
I mention some of these faults so the reader realizes that with just about every restaurant, bar, pub, or dive, there are obvious strengths and, often, obvious weaknesses. If everything were perfect we’d live in a world of Michelin 4-star establishments, but we clearly don’t. I do expect that on a quiet morning as Tysons Corner mall is coming to life that I can go fewer than 40 minutes between being visited by my server, but it’s only by sitting patiently (and quietly) that one can arrive at such numbers. On that occasion, I was astonished that it was the bartender who was doing inventory in another section of the restaurant, as one would expect management would assign them to, well, the bar area.
On a positive note, it being a hotel restaurant/bar, the TVs were tuned to sports as a good dive bar should be and the staff was ready to engage in conversation. 4.5 of 10
Knowing the above, let’s be clear that we at VBR love Barrel & Bushel. It’s a frequent visit, and we’re sharing it among our friends at a rapid pace. Our friends have raved about the dishes we’ve not tried ourselves (including the “very adult” grilled cheese and ham steak), and if we could pull it off I’d say of the beer score, this one goes to 11. The faults lie in the details, but thankfully most is easily corrected (even if the better part of a year has elapsed at this point). Since here at VBR our biggest focus is on beer, I can thankfully say that I never really wanted for a refill or, when the knowledgeable staff arrived, a recommendation. This doesn’t mean I’m overlooking the noted faults, but I do weight them differently as in many of the places we visit we don’t have typical servers, or care about speaking levels, etc. B&B isn’t one of those places, but I can say that the overwhelming high quality of the beverages and food grossly outweigh these concerns.
Caveats expressed, if you live in the NOVA region and enjoy finding some of the best local beer in draught form, with some crazy good food to pair it with, Barrel & Bushel is can’t miss. They have a bit to work on, but if you’re like us you’ll forgive them when your oversize pour of Dark Hollow or Final Glide arrive at the table. And when what you’re really looking for is an escape from the kids so you can enjoy some great (local) craft beer, that’s more than enough.
8.3 of 10