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Big Cheese

At Barrel Thief, the food makes you want to drink.



Multitasking can be a dangerous thing, and I don't just mean tweeting in traffic. As we've seen from recent closings around town, too much expansion too soon, an overly ambitious menu, or an owner who wears too many hats can mean curtains for a restaurant — especially when combined with a bad economy. So when I try a food-service establishment that does double duty as something else, I get nervous. Not many folks are equally good at running a restaurant and managing a store in multiple locations.

Luckily, Barrel Thief owners Ned Wheeler and Ross Mattis know that two heads (plus a smart chef and staff) are better than one. Tapping into Wheeler's master's degree in business administration, and Mattis' wine and restaurant expertise, the lifelong friends opened their successful wine shop and restaurant across from Short Pump Town Center in 2007, and a second location at Patterson and Libbie avenues.

While the newer outpost still has some kinks to work out, what Barrel Thief does well, it still does very well: wine, cheese and good cheer.

As you'd expect from a place that doubles as a wine shop, the selection of vino by the glass is well edited.  Six classics are mainstays, and six features highlight a particular region. My server suggests the Ramey chardonnay as a pairing for the smoked scallop starter, and indeed they are lovely together. 

The featured wines by the glass are available to order by the bottle at retail price, or you can choose to have any bottle in the store opened for a $6 fee — a steal compared with the double or triple markup in most restaurants.

While the wine options at Barrel Thief are easy to love, the food is less clear cut. Chef Emily Palley's menu is inventive, with Spanish and Mediterranean influences, but relatively limited, and some dishes need tweaking.

On a lunch visit, when I stick to starters and a sandwich, everything works. The smoked scallops with fennel and grapefruit reduction, a baby spinach salad with manchego and divine pancetta-pepper vinaigrette, and a grown-up grilled cheese (brie and strawberry preserves on rosemary focaccia) cue up the “Hallelujah” chorus. The entire cheese lineup is excellent, and you can try all six for $21. The only bummer is the wait, because the server seems to be on her own with at least four tables while she takes care of the retail side.

When I return for dinner on a busy Thursday evening, the service is as genuinely nice and attentive as before, but more harried. This time there are two servers for the restaurant and each of the nine or 10 tables is full. Still, our waitress cheerfully accommodates our request for highchairs, bowls of chips and a plain grilled cheese.

We quickly polish off appetizers of marinated olives, white bean dip with crostini and broccolini, but the entrees are less successful. The rosemary veggie skewers are tasty on their own, but we're not sure what to do with the chA"vre-leek puree. It's a great spread for our leftover crostini, but too chunky to be a dip for the veggies and seems more condiment than side dish.

The ahi tuna is perfectly rare but the flavors in the pepper vinaigrette aren't quite right with the fish, and while the white bean cassoulet is delicious, it's a strange pairing with the tuna and vinaigrette. The Kobe beef is sadly eighty-sixed by 7:30, so I try the lump crab flatbread instead, a hard-to-go-wrong combo of crab, spinach and creamy manchego spread on focaccia.

For dessert, just like with the rest of the menu, if you stick with cheese you won't be disappointed. The chocolate brownie with chocolate sauce is dark and decadent, but so molten it's a few degrees shy of batter. The blue cheese with honey and spiced pecans, on the other hand, is the perfect hit of sweet and savory, and won't leave you reaching for Tums at 2 a.m. The chocolate-chip-cookie sandwich with mascarpone cream is so rich it should come with a warning label.

While it would be nice to see slightly healthier portions at these prices (three small veggie skewers cost $13) and a little fine tuning of the entrees, you can feel the TLC coming from the kitchen and the staff. The star of the show remains the wine, but the food is good enough that you almost forget that these folks are multitasking.  S

Barrel Thief Wine Shop and Cafe  $$
5805 Patterson Ave. (and 11747 West Broad St.)
Monday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. (retail only, cafe closed)
Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m.
Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. (retail only, cafe closed)
Closed Sunday until spring
Handicapped accessible

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