The Smoke and Barrel, which will open next Tuesday, September 27, is located above Asylum at 2471 18th Street NW. The bar/restaurant will offer up wood-smoked barbecue and an extensive beer and bourbon list.
Andrew and I recently had the chance to speak with Tavernkeeper Matt Heffernan, formerly of Rustico, and Beer Director Sam Fitz, of Meridian Pint fame via email. We want to thank Matt and Sam for their long, thoughtful answers to these questions. We’re breaking this interview up into two parts, which will post today (Matt’s answers) and tomorrow (Sam’s answers). On Monday, we’ll post the opening day beer list. Enjoy!
DCBeer: What will the relationship be between The Smoke and Barrel and Asylum? Will they be sharing a kitchen? Sharing staff? Or are they completely separate establishments?
Matt Heffernan: The concepts are sharing a kitchen and a few staff members, myself and Executive Chef Vinny Waide included. Operationally, it would be impossible to put out two completely separate menus on the separate floors. The kitchen and the refrigerated space are just too small. As a result, Asylum will be keeping its mainstay menu items, but getting some fresh vegetarian/vegan updates from Vinny, and absorbing some BBQ.
As Smoke and Barrel grows, we believe that people attracted to the upstairs concept may find themselves enjoying downstairs as well. Asylum has a loyal following, and people who have patronized downstairs regularly might not be interested in the upstairs establishment. However, because the beer program downstairs is going to improve dramatically, it already has partially with the craft cans program, we believe there are folks among the beer aficionado crowd that will enjoy the hard rock playlist and dark atmosphere of Asylum. They might never have gone downstairs if we hadn’t put a world class beer bar above it, but now that they know, they [might] prefer the rock and roll beer bar downstairs.
DCBeer: Talk a little bit about the search for the chef. I know you went down south (Arkansas?) to find the chef you got. I’m sure that he’s great with barbecue, but what does he know about beer?
MH: I was sitting at the Old Town Pizzeria Paradiso, wringing my hands about the chef search, when an acquaintance of mine, who spent some time living in Memphis, mentioned that their economy was not doing well and there were probably some Pit Masters there looking for work. Really inspired by the idea of going outside the DC market for a chef, the next day I posted job listings in Memphis, Kansas City, St. Louis, Texas, North Carolina, and South Carolina. We got a ton of interesting responses, and we asked the 20 we really liked to send us some menu ideas.
This is an excerpt from Vinny’s original menu pitch email, back before he had the job:
Beer and barbecue are the quintessential American knockout punch. Nothing short of the Statue of Liberty eating a red, white, and blue apple pie while tap dancing to “God Bless America” is more American than beer and barbecue. Craft beers offer many great options when pairing with barbecue. Hoppy, floral ales offer a nice bitter and crisp finish to cleanse the palate after the mouth coating stickiness of good ‘cue. Nutty, malty bocks complement the sweet smokiness of glazed spareribs, and citrusy wheat beers offer nice acidity to cut through fatty brisket and sausage.
After the email audition, we asked a handful of people to come in and taste us on their food. Vinny blew us out of the water and won hands down.
DCBeer: How does the Smoke and Barrel fit into what 18th Street has become, namely a legitimate craft beer neighborhood in DC. People always get down on AdMo for what goes down on the weekends, but when you look at places like The Black Squirrel, Toledo Lounge, The Reef, Pharmacy Bar, Asylum, Jack Rose, Bourbon, MiG Bar, and even Gran Central, which is adding craft beer options, how do you see The Smoke and Barrel distinguishing itself? Is it going to rely heavily on the BBQ to do that since there really isn’t another dedicated BBQ place in AdMo?
MH: Asylum has been on 18th Street for 15 years. People like John Andrade, our principal owner, have seen the pendulum swing a few times over that period. The whole city has changed drastically in that time. I think there are more than a few people who would argue that the restaurant culture of the United States has changed irrevocably. We are definitely in the camp that is invested in Adams Morgan’s rebirth as more of a restaurant neighborhood, and especially as a destination for beer. In terms of distinguishing ourselves from the other craft beer establishments; I think the product will speak for itself. We have the District’s first Cicerone and all of the advantages associated with that.
DCBeer: How many seats at the bar and what’s the restaurant’s capacity overall?
MH: 12 seats at the bar, 60 total (with room for a couple more two-top tables, if we decide to add them). The capacity number is obviously significantly higher when we get to the standing hours.
DCBeer: How is the “beer pairing” project going to fit in with this project? I don’t think people normally think about pairing beer with BBQ. Is beer pairing going to be something that’s emphasized during staff education?
MH: Beerpairing.org is technically unaffiliated with the restaurant. However, me being the Tavern Keeper of Smoke & Barrel, and beer pairing as an art form being such a huge part of my life, this will greatly benefit the guests at the restaurant. They will always have access through either myself, Sam, or one of our many qualified staff members, to somebody who can provide them with a perfect complement to their meal. As we get more in-depth with staff training, everyone will hone their skills as a table side beer steward. We are really excited about the pairing dinners we are going to put together with both beer and bourbon.
Thanks to Matt for his time, be sure to stay tuned tomorrow for Sam Fitz’s portion of the interview. If you have questions about the Smoke and Barrel, leave them in the comments; we’ll be sure to get them answered for you!