Walking into the former Egan & Sons on Cumberland Street, the new décor immediately draws you in with its dark wood-paneled walls, high cocktail tables, and large booths. The look of the former Irish pub is gone. In it's place is Cumberland St. Smokehouse.
One long bar lines the back of the restaurant. There's a smaller second bar to the right of the entrance highlighting Cumberland's bourbon selection, and the beginning of the kitchen is denoted with a wire rack holding various hanging cast iron pots. TVs are strategically placed throughout the space, some even lined in the dark wood allowing them to blend more seamlessly with the room. The effect? A great venue to watch all manner of sports from pro football to the insanity that was March Madness. So, yes, you can qualify this as a sports bar that serves barbecue — and good 'cue at that.
But first, let's talk about Chef Kyle Yarbrough's duck fat fries. Mourning the days of dining at La Fourchette and enjoying Yarbrough's signature frites? Cry no more. The chef has resurrected them on Cumberland's menu. Topped with pulled chicken or pork, smoked cheddar cheese, bacon, white barbecue sauce, and jalapeños, the loaded fries ($11) sounded and looked decadent, but we opted for the barbecue duck fat fries ($5.50). There was no ketchup needed. The large basket of perfectly crisped frites was favorably sweet and salty and the barbecue seasoning was all the flavoring required. But while some may be dubious of what else to expect beyond that, especially from a chef versed in French cuisine, you'll be pleasantly surprised.
The Benton's Country Ham spread ($10) for the table, a narrow wooden board, appeared topped with a heaping amount of thinly sliced Tennessee smoked and salty ham. Marinated mushroom caps, pickled okra spears, dilled cucumber rounds, homemade pimento cheese, a dollop of whole seed spicy mustard, and Ritz crackers finished the plate. Although the pimento cheese was firm and just a little too hard to spread, the platter was a nice mélange of southern vittles to get the tastebuds started in the right direction.
The smoked chicken wings ($7 for six; $13 for 12) were also a big success. Slow cooked, the meat was meltingly tender while the skin was crisped and seasoned with Cumberland's signature dry rub barbecue mixture. If you need a sauce to pair with it, the Alabama-style white sauce offers a unique twist to the traditional blue cheese or trite ranch options. But there's little need for sauce with these finger-licking morsels.
At a barbecue joint, it's rare to see any vegetables that haven't been fried, smothered, or boiled for hours and so the salad selection, while atypical for this genre, was an appreciated addition. A choice between an heirloom tomato salad ($7.50) or a bibb salad ($6.50) with seasonal vegetables (read: bell peppers, cucumbers, the traditional allotment) can come topped with pulled pork or chicken with Cumberland's house-made shallot vinaigrette. As the bubbly waitress attested, this will not leave you hungry.
On the entree side, the pulled chicken was a success as well, with its tender meat and a slight sweet, smokiness that pervades before adding one of three selections of sauce: a piquant vinegar, sweet tomato red, or a very mustardy, tangy yellow variety. The specials of the day also come highly recommended. Unfortunately, we didn't get to try the highly regarded ribs (market price), but we did have Cumberland's flavorful onion beef hash over rice ($12). While another day's special, the country captain curry chicken, sounded appealing and showed the creativity of the chef, we decided to stay with the pulled hickory smoked pork platter ($11.50). The platter contained about a half pound of tender pork along with crispy smoked ends mounded next to a slice of traditional white bread, a few dill pickles, and two heaping bowls of sides — one can choose between collards, mac and cheese, cole slaw, baked beans, and potato salad.
And therein lies the rub. The sides were the only part of the meal that weren't always consistent. The menu notes that the sides were vegetarian, but, as much as I love vegetables, vegetarian sides at a barbecue joint make me nervous — lest we forget, in the South pork is considered a vegetable, as it should be. My initial sampling of sides consisted of overly-salted collards, dry and unseasoned cole slaw (even with a mayonnaise base), cheesy mac and cheese (the big winner at the table), and the delicious special side, a beef hash over rice. What was odd was that on one visit the baked beans were bland and seasonless, but on the next, they were sinus-clearing. A second visit rendered another successfully cheesy mac and cheese, sweet and tender collards (not overly salted this time), but again, a bland cole slaw without the colorful red cabbage in this version.
Luckily, the beverages are more of a sure bet. As the sign states, there is a large local craft beer selection on tap, ranging from Cumberland's own St. Smokehouse lager, Holy City Pilsner, Westbrook One Claw, and Quest Golden Fleece, to name a few. They also offer a very reasonable $12 bourbon flight; one can choose from William Wolfe Pecan, Buffalo Trace, Jefferson Small Batch, Jim Bean 12, Eagle Rare, Four Roses, and Russell Reserve. While the wine list is minimal, there is a French Sacha Lichine Rose offered as well as a Machino Prosecco, for the sophisticated oenophile. Complementing all the craft offerings are craft cocktail selections, including a Rittenhouse Rye Sazerac and a Rye Negroni, indicating that this is not your typical Miller Lite/PBR joint. These are offered in 12 and 16 ounces respectively in case you want to imbibe old-school style.
In the end, it's clear that Yarbrough has made a successful transition from French fare to smoked meats. Between the pulled pork, pulled chicken, smoked wings or ribs (usually available on Friday and Saturday nights), you really can't go wrong. While I have a tendency to judge a barbecue establishment by the quality of their sides, let's face it, if the meat's not good, what's the point? At Cumberland St. Smokehouse, the meats were constantly gratifying with just the right hint of hickory smoke, juicy tenderness, and crispy end pieces scorched by the fire. The accompanying sauces may not be as nuanced as some generational old family secret recipes, but for the standard three offered, it works. If the sides become consistent with their seasoning, I think Cumberland will be a real hit. In the interim, I'm happy to eat the meat, especially the wings, and drink a cold beer while watching sports, anonymously surrounded by innocuous tourists in lieu of the trendier areas of town.