A friend has referred to this wine bar and bistro as a “NW Valley gem”, and I couldn’t agree more. Since we moved to this area a few months ago, I’ve been hoping to find a casual, cozy neighborhood restaurant with great food and a welcoming, friendly staff where “everybody knows your name” (yep, I’m from Boston). Tucked away in a strip mall, once you step into this inviting restaurant, you know you’ve found something special. On our very first visit, we were struck with how warm this place feels – wine casks outline the wall behind the small bar, votive-lit tables are scattered throughout the room, and sitting areas with leather sofas and low tables invite you to sit and relax over a glass of wine. For al fresco dining, there is a large L-shaped patio, with cooling misters in the summer.
The first time we stopped in was for a glass of wine after dinner at a nearby restaurant. The staff was so friendly – Paul Carter, wine guy extraordinaire, who chose some wonderful wines for us, and Chef Richard Strobel, both of who have worked at Tarbell’s – that we immediately made plans to come back for dinner the following night. Since then, we’ve returned many times, and the rest of the staff is just as warm and friendly, including Dave, Tricia, and Kevin, and the sous-chef John. Chef Richard has created a menu of some of his favorite dishes, with a variety that will appeal to everyone, while Paul has a wine list that includes 30+ wines available by the glass. There are also flights with such whimsical themes as the “Australian Walkabout”, encouraging you to join in the fun. Paul has made sure that there are enough unusual varietals and boutique producers to make the choices interesting. Out to make learning about wine comfortable and enjoyable, he’s affable, engaging, and enthusiastic about his wines. He explains that he likes to introduce patrons to wines they might have never tried before, finding their familiar “safe zone” but getting them to “push the envelope” and try something different.
On a recent visit, I ordered one of the chef’s special off-menu items – crispy crostini topped with Laura Chenel goat cheese and drizzled with rosemary-infused caramel. By now Paul knows I’m willing to expand my wine horizon, so I asked him to choose a pairing, and he picked a wine I had never had before – a crisp and floral torrontes from Argentina. This “well-kept secret” (well, not for long!) is made from Argentina’s signature white grapes, and is that country’s most widely-planted white. I’m certainly a fan now. On another visit, I asked him to recommend one of Arizona’s excellent local wines and pair it with an appetizer and entrée off the menu. Another winner! This was my first time sampling an Echo Canyon wine, and we loved the 2003 Estate Syrah. This delicious fruit-forward and well-structured syrah paired beautifully with my starter of olive tapenade with creamy goat cheese and crostini, and a decadent Croque Madame (a variation of the classic toasted French sandwich of Gruyere and Black Forest ham covered in a béchamel sauce).
The varied selection of wine is complemented by the delicious food the talented kitchen turns out. The chef has told us everything on the menu is something he loves to eat himself. Great for us! Popular appetizers include warm oven-baked Brie, and bruschetta topped with sliced beef tenderloin, caramelized shallots, and taleggio cheese. A variety of entrees range from sophisticated dishes such as rosemary and mustard-marinated lamb chops with porcini mushroom risotto, to comfort dishes like spaghetti and meatballs with red wine marinara. A personal favorite is the mussels – so plump and so flavorful I asked if there was seafood stock in the broth. No, it’s simply the classic balance of white wine, shallots, garlic and sprigs of fresh thyme. After tasting the fries as a side dish, these are another standing order for us, especially with the mussels for our own version of moules frites. They’re a recent addition to the menu and are amazing – perfectly crispy thin-cut fries with bits of skin, dusted with grated parmesan and minced parsley, and served with a delicious lemony aioli. Other favorites on the menu are the BMT (apple-wood smoked bacon, fresh mozzarella, and tomato, with roasted tomato aioli on ciabatta), and any of the weekly seafood specials. Some highlights have been the ahi tuna with ginger aioli and Napa slaw, Ruby trout with red tomato risotto and a green tomato and blackberry sauce and, most recently, this week’s knockout of pan-seared jumbo diver sea scallops with red-wine braised wild mushrooms, mascarpone polenta cake, and ancho drizzle.
The Thursday night wine tastings are very popular, and, with the relaxed crowd, casual set-up, and live music, make learning about wine fun and accessible. Take a seat, and the waitstaff will bring you a wine glass. At your leisure, approach the table where Paul will pour the various wines, explain what they are, and answer any questions you may have. They like to vary the wine tastings, one week pairing the wines with cheese, or another week having a blind wine tasting which encourages everyone to guess and win a prize.
So, if you’re looking for a casual neighborhood restaurant where you can enjoy a delicious meal and relax over a glass of wine, then Jug ‘n Barrel is the place for you! I’m sure once you visit, you too will agree that this spot truly is a gem.
Jug ‘N Barrel has closed.