And when you first lay eyes on the place, you are still skeptical. The windowless block building hardly looks like a culinary palace, but just step in from the front porch, be surprised, exhale and relax. The staff and owners will beguile you even before you are seduced by the fare.
Maybe the great Italian director Federico Fellini was right when he said, “All art is autobiographical; the pearl is the oyster’s autobiography.” If so, The Mighty Oak Barrel is the pearl created by Grainne Trainor and Lisa Rusak.
This gem just above the Allegheny somehow manages to be both a destination for that special date and a regular stop for those who gather here weekly. The dining room is warm and cozy, and any stranger who sits at the rectangular bar just to the right quickly becomes an old friend.
There is an easiness here usually found in the cafes and trattorie of New Orleans or Umbria, as if everyone is surely entitled to the pleasures of the table. It is important food and wine without pretense, affordable quality in a casual setting. Above all, it is a happy place.
The seasonal menu is both health conscious and wine driven. There are at least 20 wines by the glass and 60 by the bottle and, refreshingly, the price works out the same whether you order by the glass or bottle.
“We keep digging for good wine at the right price, so we often feature little-known selections for dinner and our tastings,” according to Grainne, who works the front of the house while Lisa works the back as executive chef. The twice-monthly tastings often sell out and include three themed wines with three matching hors d’oeuvres — all for 30 bucks.
A recent winter menu featured roasted beets with warm camembert, white asparagus, blood orange vinaigrette and candied cashews as an appetizer for $8. Or start with a house-cured filet mignon carpaccio with white truffle oil and a black truffle cheese arugula salad at $10.
Entrees included lamb shank stew with braised root vegetables and a juniper cabernet reduction for $18 or, for the same price, you could have butternut squash ravioli in rosemary-brown cream. A mixed grill of roasted leg of venison, an elk-and-bear patty, and a pheasant sausage with whipped potatoes in beef short rib gravy will satisfy for $32.
Their signature salad dressing — folks travel miles for this — is toffee cappuccino vinaigrette. And there is one beer on tap: Guinness. As Grainne says about the nectar of her native Ireland, “If you’re only going to have one, it should be the best.”
Like all great neighborhood joints, this one plays a vital role in the community, raising money to fight multiple sclerosis, breast cancer and other scourges. And there is an annual golf outing that generates thousands of dollars for the Make-a-Wish Foundation.
And any lingering doubts about the philosophy of life at The Mighty Oak Barrel vanish when you consider this “quote for the day” from the chalkboard in the bar: Visualize World Peas.