The Barrel Room: A novel approach to dining out

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The Barrel Room at 5330 College Avenue in Rockridge is a restaurant where the wine gets equal billing with the food. Photo: The Barrel Room

If you go to The Barrel Room, a new food spot with a focus on wine that opened in Rockridge a few months ago, you’ll experience something a little different. Rather than munch your way through three courses, accompanied by a bottle of one of your tried-and-trusted grape varietals, owners Sarah Trubnick and Carolyn Johnson, both certified sommeliers, would like you to be a little daring — and learn something along the way.

The restaurant builds a menu around its wine list, rather than the other way around. The kitchen pairs the pours with rustic, traditional regional dishes, and the result is an enjoyable evening of eating while putting one’s wine tastebuds to work.

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The restaurant is small and cozy and lined with shelves stocked with an original selection of wines. Photo: The Barrel Room

The Barrel Room follows its San Francisco original in that it rotates its menu and wine list every couple of months, homing in on a different part of the world each time.

Until recently, its focus was Germany, Switzerland and Austria, which meant dishes like Käsespätzle with Caramelized Red Onions and Bacon Gruyere Quiche to eat, and Grüner Veltliner and Rieslings on the wine list. This week it switched its attention to Italy.

[See The Barrel Room's current dinner menu and wine menu.]

But one of the fun aspects of The Barrel Room is the owners’ ability to surprise you. When Berkeleyside ate there, the focus was on French regional food and wine and for each dish we tried, we were offered two glasses of wine to taste with it — one a traditional complementary pour, and one that made for an alternative pairing.

So, to accompany a creamy, salty Cod Brandade, we were urged to try both a smooth 2012 white Valle Isarco kerner from Alto Adige in Italy, as well as a very rustic 2007 savagnan Rijckaert ‘Grand Elevage’ Vieilles Vines from Arbois in the Jura. And for a Poulet Basquaise, we were offered both a white 2009 Gros Manseng and Petite Manseng Lapeyre ‘Vitage Vielh’ from Jurançon in South West France, as well as a red 2010 Tannat, Domaine Berthoumieu ‘Cuvee Charles de Batz’ from Madiran, also from South West France.

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The Barrel Room is a wine store as well as a restaurant so you can take home a bottle that you enjoyed while dining. Photo: The Barrel Room

Trubnick said she enjoys encouraging people to taste unusual, even strange wines. “It makes for a richer experience to try wines that are seen to complement a dish, as well as those that would normally be seen to contrast with the food,” she said.

Some of the suggested wines are those that would be drunk by the locals where the regional dishes originate, and it’s likely Trubnick has sat down and sipped with many of the winemakers herself. She spent a long time traveling the world honing her wine expertise, working in cellars and vineyards, often sleeping in her car.

Trubnick and Johnson call The Barrel Room a “restaurant with a twist,” which pretty much sums it up. Their opening chef, Sam Paulding, said his training as a caterer helped him prepare for the versatility that was expected of him. The current, permanent kitchen team consists of Executive Chef Manuel Hewitt and Sous Chef Abraham Ibarra. One or the other of the sommeliers is often on hand at the cozy Rockridge location to offer recommendations or just chat about wine.

And if you fall in love with a wine, chances are you can buy a bottle and take it home, as the Barrel Room has well-stocked library-like shelves loaded with a wide variety of wines for sale.

The Barrel Room is at 5330 College Avenue, Oakland. Visit them online for opening hours and to see their menu.

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