Bean & Barrel opened in 2007, and for three years the coffee shop and wine bar settled into a comfortable role as watering hole for residents in Governors Club and other neighboring communities. Because it's located on the southern fringe of Orange County, a good five miles off the beaten path of Chapel Hill, the restaurant was pretty much held to being a local hangout. The menu was limited, and outsiders weren't always welcomed with as much enthusiasm as regulars. In short, there was no reason to go out of your way to seek out Bean & Barrel.
That changed dramatically last year, when owners Jason Dell and Chris Ehrenfeld added a kitchen and hired Sam Allen as chef. Allen, a graduate of New England Culinary Institute who has worked up and down the East Coast (and had a two-year stint in New Orleans), immediately sought to broaden the restaurant's appeal.
Allen developed a seasonally changing dinner menu to go with the bar's international selection of 20 wines by the glass. Fresh-ground Angus burgers, sandwiches ranging from chipotle lime chicken to grilled veggies and pimento cheese, and an assortment of salads round out the offering for light appetites and the lunchtime crowd. Prices - most entrees are in the $12-$15 range - add to the attraction.
The offering is well-suited to the casual setting, too, with starter options covering a broad spectrum from grilled chicken quesadilla to Honey Island soup, an earthy souvenir of the chef's sojourn in bayou country. Spinach, artichoke and white cheddar dip is a bit skimpy with the first two ingredients, but a deep bowl of truffled mac and cheese is richly redolent of the humus perfume of black truffles.
Crisp Buffalo wings
Smokehouse Buffalo wings get their subtle wood fragrance not from smoking, but from a splash of chipotle in the sauce. Regardless of method, the wings are fat and juicy in their crisp, lightly sauced skins.
The chef's fondness for mushrooms is reflected in the entree offering, too, where it's represented by a creamy mushroom risotto that's chockablock with shiitakes and oyster mushrooms. You can jazz up the dish with optional grilled chicken or smoked salmon for a modest surcharge.
I'd avoid the salmon, though, whose intense flavor upstages the mushrooms.
Fish and chips are a keeper. Purists might quibble that the crust is more tempura-like than the traditional beer batter, and that the "chips" are actually skin-on fries. But the cod is moist and flaky, and the batter satisfyingly light and crunchy.
As you might expect, Allen's take on the Creole classic jambalaya is more than respectable and generously loaded with chicken, shrimp and andouille. The dish needed salt when I sampled it, but I suspect that was an aberration, given the overall level of the kitchen's execution.
More typical of that execution is the chef's textbook rendering of a pan-roasted airline breast of Ashley Farms chicken. Succulent under a crisp, nut-brown skin, it's served with creamy garlic mashed potatoes and a deconstructed tapenade of sun-dried tomatoes and jumbo Queen olives.
House-made desserts offer sweet temptation to linger over coffee. Recent rewards for the unhurried have included a molten-centered chocolate lava cake, not-too-sweet coconut ice cream, and a spice-fragrant rice pudding crowned with ruby slices of pear poached in red wine.
The wait staff appears to have gotten the message about Bean & Barrel's new attitude, too. The level of attentiveness may vary from one server to the next, but the warmth of the welcome to all comers does not.
For all its changes, Bean & Barrel still exudes a laid-back coffeehouse/lounge vibe (and lives up to that image with an espresso bar and pastries from Ninth Street Bakery in the mornings). Sofa and coffee table groupings sharing space with barstools and café tables, eclectic artwork by local artists and a handful of TVs scattered about the room make for a relaxed and inviting setting regardless of the time of day. That's just the sort of place that Ehrenfeld and Dell, childhood friends from Pittsburgh who found themselves reunited as adults in Chapel Hill, were going for all along.