A better barbecue
Cask & Barrel
Sacramento, CA 95815
Good for: high-end barbecue
Notable dishes: chocolate pie and brisket
I’m of the opinion that Sacramento doesn’t do barbecue very successfully. So allow me to say how refreshing it is that one restaurant is starting to buck that trend. Cask & Barrel opened this year in the former Enotria building, and soon after good rumors began to flow about the food that seasoned chef Gabriel Glasier was putting out. In response, I ventured to north Sacramento to finally confirm what I was hearing.
The mac ’n’ cheese certainly boasts plenty of flavor due to the presence of aged Wisconsin-style cheddar, Gouda, bacon and a thoughtful smattering of cornbread crumble on top. The sauce isn’t roux-based, but relies solely on stabilizers, wheat beer and the cheese to achieve its superb Velveeta-like consistency; an exciting rendition of an otherwise typical dish.
A plate of freshly fried pork rinds and chicken skin arrives as a study in structure, towering high amongst shredded foliage of flaky fried collard greens and pools of collard and red pepper gels. Both are cooked with precision, but a heavy hand of salt almost launched ours into the realm of inedibility.
A quick note on plating: It is both breathtaking and thoughtful. Each component has intended purpose and a pronounced flavor, and is utilized with a contemporary aesthetic. Bravo.
The bourbon caramel chicken wings were expertly cooked and sweet as can be, though their pairing with a biting blue cheese sauce remains questionable. The result seemed like a bad Tinder date; both would have better spent the night alone.
The barbecue here is given incredible care and attention. It’s first smoked over hickory for seven hours before then being finished sous vide for another 72 hours. This ensures a robust, smoky flavor that doesn’t overpower anything else on the plate, while maintaining a melting-from-the-bone texture. Barbecue purists may revolt, but one can hardly argue with the tender results.
The brisket puts all other brisket in Sacramento to shame: husky with smoke, soft and bursting with flavor. The pork ribs are treated simply: no rub or intense marinade, just smoke and meat. I see what they’re trying to accomplish and appreciate it, but a bit of spice would bring it up from good to glorious. The cheddar-stuffed pork sausage was also a bit of a miss. While fine in flavor, the mealy texture of the sausage resulted in it being ignored by us all.
Meats here are served with a fine assortment of sharply seasoned housemade pickles. (Bonus points for the ramps and fiddleheads. It might earn C&B a farm-to-flogging from some, but some foods simply do not grow well in California, if at all.)
The housemade barbecue sauces prove to be an overall complement to the meat though skew towards being intensely sweet. The honey mustard sauce suffers in particular; the mustard seeds’ natural pungency wholly repressed. The hot sauce possesses a spark, however, so there’s that if you desire the fire.
Then there is the magical chocolate hand pie. A mixture of sugar and chocolate tucked into a flaky pastry and fried. It reminded me of when my mother would treat me to a Hostess pudding pie as a kid, but this was scores above the $1 treats that were sold in their wax paper sleeves. Served with vanilla ice cream and a svelte duck fat caramel sauce, this may be one of the best desserts I’ve had in years.
Cask & Barrel is certainly doing a lot of lovely things with the concept of barbecue, turning it over and dressing it up, blurring the lines between tablecloth dining and eating with your fingers. Some of it is good, some of it is excellent and a few dishes need work. Still, if you have dinner plans this week, I recommend you cancel them and immediately go check out Cask & Barrel.