A cackle ricocheted off the concrete floor, and I started to feel like I was receding into the frame. I shrunk as the people around me grew large and fuzzy. The din increased. It was like a scene in a movie where someone has a panic attack, the voices around him forming an aural tsunami.
Little Barrel and Brown was only about 25 percent full, but the noise of a dozen happy hour revelers flooded the space. Newly arrived diners at the handsome button-leather banquettes perched beneath filament light fixtures added to the cacophonous chorus. The couple next to me debated their orders. I heard every voice. I picked up every detail. Every laugh. Every clink of flatware on a dish. It was like I was a superhero blessed (cursed?) with the hearing of a dog.
I’m all for happy hours and big laughs, but a recent dinner drove Mutt Man batty. And it wasn’t the only time it happened in the less-than-half-full restaurant, opened in December by brothers Matt and Andrew Botticelli (of Boticelli’s Italian restaurant on South Congress Avenue) and partner Tim Brown. (Botticelli is an Italian word that roughly translates to “little barrels” in English, hence the name of the restaurant that moved into the space previously occupied by the Woodland.)
There exists a fine line between bonhomie and party, and on two occasions Little Barrel and Brown guests obliterated it. Part of the problem comes from the fact that the bar seats almost two dozen and twists through the heart of the restaurant. On both occasions people stood in clusters between the front door and the bar, radiating noise in waves and blasts. Their congregation was an island surrounded by the sea of a well-appointed restaurant colored with steel greys and dark wood.
There also exists a fine line between comfort food and food that smothers. Little Barrel and Brown executes some comforting dishes at dinner and brunch that would be welcome at any bar. But when its ambitions extend into finer (and more expensive) dining, it crashes with the grace of a sloppy hug from a drunk but well-intentioned aunt.
An intense half-pound cheeseburger ($13) that squirted fat from ground brisket exhibited the kitchen’s strengths. Funky bleu cheese (you also can choose cheddar) blended with the tangy minerality of mayonnaise blended with bone marrow on a thick patty with a fire-blasted crust. I added some excellent coarse mustard to add dimension. A juicy burger and a beer at a classic bar that looks like it would speak with a British accent if it could talk … that’s what I’m looking for.
But not all of the bar food meets the standards of the burger. Inconsistencies plagued the nightly flatbread special ($12) and a trio of sliders ($14). The flatbread had a bubbled edged and soft center, but the barbecued pork carried not a whisper of smoke and was doused in a treacly barbecue sauce that was not subdued by a salty Parmesan béchamel. The tender duck sliders suffered from what tasted like the same sauce as the flatbread, overwhelming the bitterness and tang expected from arugula and pickled onions.
Comfort food doesn’t necessarily simply mean familiar food. I am familiar with Abilene Country Club from the early 1990s, but that doesn’t mean I am comforted by an overcooked pork chop slathered in mustard ($22) or salty scallops swimming in an excess of tart lemon-butter sauce ($24). The mustard was great with the burger, but adding cream and shrouding a tough pork chop with it made for a heavy-handed dish that also included purple pea hulls in an overly sweet sauce. A light bronze sear suffering from too much salt capped velvety scallops awash in lemon-butter sauce. If the sauce had been applied less liberally, its zesty flavor could have enlivened the scallops, but the plate looked like the Good Ship Lollipop had suffered an oil spill.
The reckless abandon was more welcome with dessert. Airy cornbread with toasty edges fenced a mound of woozy bourbon ice cream and whipped cream in a sundae ($10) embraced by the salt of caramel corn and sweetness of an abundant caramel glaze.
The Southern flavors and the crowds showed more restraint at brunch, and our service experience shifted from gloomy ambivalence to sunny positivity. Little Barrel and Brown is one of a handful of places that offers brunch on Saturday and Sunday. That distinction and solid Southern staples like shrimp and grits ($15), and chicken and waffles ($13) should make it a popular weekend draw. The blue corn grits were creamy while maintaining firm texture in a bowl flecked with tomatoes and mushrooms, and the juicy, spicy chicken, fried to a knobby crunch and served with fluffy waffles, made for one of the better iterations of that dish I’ve had in town. The accompanying chorizo-maple syrup and pickled jalapeno sounded like they might be a bit much, but they found a salt-sweet-and-spicy harmony without getting too loud.
Little Barrel and Brown
1716 S. Congress Ave. 512-582-1229, littlebarrelandbrown.com
Rating: 6.5 out of 10
Hours: 5 p.m. to midnight daily. Brunch: 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Prices: Appetizers, $6-$15. Soups, salad and sandwiches, $8-$14. Entrees, $16-$30. Brunch dishes, $8-16.
What the rating means: The 10-point scale is an average of weighted scores for food, service, value, ambience and overall dining experience, with 10 being the best.
The Bottom Line: Little Barrel and Brown makes some noise with Southern comfort flavors, but it needs to find a way to rein it in.