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Bird & Rye delivers Southern-style soul food

Realizing his heart was no longer in the restaurant industry, Neil Clooney turned to soul food.

Southern-style fried chicken headlines the menu at Clooney’s new Bird & Rye, opened at the downtown Ashland location of his former Smithfields Pub & Pies.

The change has been more than a year in the making, as the chef simultaneously trained for a new career as a firefighter and laid plans to sell his flagship Smithfields restaurant across South Second Street. Separating the Smithfields brand from his smaller pub inspired Clooney to refine a recipe for fried chicken and serve it alongside his British-style meat pies for the past year.

While the Pub & Pies concept was singular in the region, fried chicken, Clooney says, is surprisingly underrepresented in Southern Oregon. It offers an opportunity to reach a larger audience and simplify kitchen operations at Bird & Rye. The resulting casual menu celebrates the American South’s greatest hits: barbecue pork and brisket, mashed potatoes and gravy, macaroni and cheese, hush puppies, collard green and barbecue beans.

Chicken is either bathed in buttermilk or doused in “Nashville hot” sauce. There are quarter, half and whole birds for dine-in customers and “bags to go.” A dozen wings with two dipping sauces is priced at $30. A whole bird with two sides and four rolls sells for $45.

Ever the savvy restaurateur, Clooney included several entrée salads on the menu, as well as a few thoughtful sandwiches and a burger. Sandwiches and burger both can be customized from a list of add-ons, ranging from cheese, avocado or a fried egg for an extra dollar to bacon or brisket from $2 to $5. Fans of the erstwhile pub menu still find beetroot pickled deviled eggs ($4) and steak fries with goat cheese and brown gravy ($6) on the appetizer menu.

“Rye” in the restaurant’s title refers to rye whiskey, but brews are more prominently promoted. A large chalkboard on the brick wall lists eight local and Oregon labels on tap. My friend favored the Pfriem Bright Pale Ale, and I chose Apple Outlaw’s Siskiyou Gold Cider, a light, clean counterpoint to the rich, hearty food I anticipated.

Pimiento cheese hush puppies ($6) set the tone for a pleasurable meal at Bird & Rye. The six hand-formed fritters were crunchy and slightly chewy on the outside with a tender interior crumb and just the right hint of savor and spice. Charred green onion aioli enhanced the fritters’ flavor, while the side of house-made pickles gave the palate a brief respite in between bites. I could have happily whiled away the afternoon sipping another beer with each fresh order of hush puppies.

My friend appreciated the appetizer but reserved most of his enthusiasm for Bird & Rye’s pulled pork Cubano ($10). Spying the sandwich almost immediately, he didn’t even consider another lunch item, for which he’s developed something of a fetish after frequenting mom-and-pop Cuban corner stores in Chicago.

Honor-bound to try the fried chicken, I balked at the quarter-bird, which comprises either leg and thigh ($8) or breast and wing ($9). Because we had an afternoon of wine tasting planned, taking home leftovers wasn’t a viable option. So I settled for the fried chicken thigh sandwich ($9) with a side order of macaroni and cheese ($3).

In deference to the sandwich’s Sriracha ranch dressing, I requested buttermilk chicken, rather than Nashville hot, which typically incorporates cayenne pepper, paprika, mustard and other seasonings in a buttery glaze. Yet, I found the sandwich’s heat hardly detectable and vowed next time to choose Nashville hot. And while the sweet-tart house-made pickles are practically perfection, the coleslaw could have used a bit of tang to offset the chicken’s savor.

Indeed, the batter’s texture was overshadowed by the sandwich’s pillowy potato bun. Next time, I’d select the unadorned bird, simply presented with pickles and a dipping sauce of choice.

My friend had nothing but praise for his Cubano, a double-decker marvel of pulled pork merged with ham, amalgamated with melted Swiss. With just whole-grain mustard aioli and pickles as accents, the sandwich suffered no extraneous ingredients and did the genre proud, according to my friend.

By contrast, the macaroni and cheese curiously fell short on creaminess and flavor. The crumbled potato chip topping would have been a welcome counterpoint to generously sauced noodles. And the predominant note, while not unpleasant, was of nutmeg, rather than cheese or any other seasoning common to the dish. Collards prepared with cider vinegar ($3) or “burnt ends” barbecue beans ($4) would get my vote on a return visit.

Trivia nights and live music are pub holdovers that regularly compel crowds to the spot at 23 S. Second St. Hours are 11:30 a.m. to midnight daily. Call 541-482-7437.

The chicken thigh sandwich is served with house-made pickles at Ashland's Bird & Rye. Photo by Sarah Lemon.