My wife, Danielle, and I make at least monthly stops at Smithfields Pub & Pies.
We hop in, grab some goat-cheese fries and curry potpies, drink a couple of pints in the quaint British atmosphere, and read dated Trivial Pursuit cards to one another. But this time is different. This time, Smithfields had something that’s fairly rare in the Rogue Valley: fried chicken.
Larks and The Top (née Granite Taphouse) also have fried chicken on the menu. The older Smithfields Restaurant & Bar, located just across the street and a couple of steps up the hill, also has its take on the battered bird, along with a number of other Southern-inspired dishes, such as collard greens, barbecue baked beans and smoked brisket. But there’s no place you can really go to get a quick bucket of wings and drumsticks. Until now.
Facebook posts announcing the addition of fried chicken to the pub’s menu are among Smithfields Pub & Pies’ most popular. Having recently returned from a trip to Atlanta and missing the soul food there, my wife and I knew we had to stop by as soon as Smithfields’ new food was on the menu. In fact, I think we may have been the first two paying customers to try the pub’s fried chicken.
“We do (fried chicken) over at the restaurant,” says Neil Clooney, Smithfields owner and executive chef, in his smooth British accent. “We’ve been doing it at the restaurant since pretty much the beginning. It’s pretty popular, and people tell me it’s the best in town.”
While Clooney considered serving chicken at the pub for some time, it wasn’t until they acquired a new fryer that he put the option into play.
“So, I thought, ‘How can I utilize this in a productive manner to really get the most potential out of it and maybe bring something to the Ashland dining scene that’s maybe lacking?’ ” Clooney says.
That’s when the idea for a piecemeal menu came to mind. Laid out on a small piece of cardstock are a simple set of options: breast, wing/breast, thigh, drumstick, all offered for $4 or $5. The meal also is available in two-piece ($8), three-piece ($12) and half-chicken ($16) options. House-made sriracha ranch sauce and barbecue sauce also are available for $1 each. Mashed potatoes and gravy on the side are $3.
Taking a look at the options and the prices, one can already get the idea that it’s reminiscent of an elevated KFC menu, only with locally sourced and ethically raised ingredients that would make a corporate food chain hide its face in shame. The chicken is pasture-raised and air-cooled before it gets to Smithfields. It’s then brined for 24 hours before being drenched in buttermilk and coated in gluten-free flour, which, according to Clooney, won a staff taste test against a traditional gluten recipe.
“It’s not essentially gluten-free, because gluten products are fried in our oil. So, if you’re celiac, you wouldn’t be able to eat it,” Clooney relays. “But if you’re just gluten intolerant or you’re not doing gluten right now, it’s fine. We do fry gluten in the fryer, but the stuff just falls to the bottom of the fryer.”
That’s all well and good for the gluten intolerant, but how does it taste? There are three key elements to good fried chicken: moisture, batter and seasoning. Clooney’s bird has all three of these.
Subtle flavors have no place to hide in the batter’s seasoning: salt, starch and buttermilk are at the forefront, with little lingering of any additional spices. This felt intentional, unapologetic and, alongside the briny, moist chicken, made for a savory, down-home bite of food. The thick, salty layer of breading falls delicately to the plate as you bite into tender meat that elicits tiny drops of moisture as you sink your teeth in. Sriracha ranch adds a kick to the food that is hard to resist.
In its simplicity, the meal reflected the entire concept for Clooney’s new dining option. Blazoned across the top of the menu is the word “pukka,” British slang for “first class” or “absolutely genuine,” according to Smithfields.
When Clooney took a break from frying chicken in the back to come chat with us, the excitement on his face was clear.
“I got the feeling that the pies might get a little too one-dimensional for people. To keep people coming, we’ve got pies, we’ve got salad, but what’s another niche thing we can do in this town that other restaurants don’t do to sort of swing the pendulum in our way?” Clooney says, wiping sweat from a ginger brow.
The new menu option also could mean a completely new direction for the restaurant, according to the owner.
“It could really change my whole concept. I could start doing slaw down here and chicken sandwiches. If that’s the way the customer base grows, then that’s what decisions are made. Business is customer-driven. You can’t be pinning your emotions to any one idea,” he adds.
For an area that’s far removed from the Southern United States and where the fastest, cheapest fried chicken you can get is KFC, such a decision by the restaurateur might not be a bad one. And given the traction that Smithfields’ chicken is getting on social media, I might guess that other diners in Ashland are thinking the same thing.