Anybody who says that simplicity is intrinsically good is pulling your leg.
Take beverages, for instance. They used to be simple. There was no such thing as a barista. Why would you need one when your coffee choices boiled down to regular or decaf?
Back then there were bartenders, but no mixologists. Back bars were stocked with sugary prepackaged cocktail mixes, and all the beers looked and tasted pretty much alike.
And back then, if you wanted a good chocolate malt, you could find one at pretty much every corner drugstore in the country.
Well, we live in a golden age of coffees, cocktails and beers (more on that in a moment). But a good chocolate malt is a rare find, indeed, outside of specialty shops like Comfy Cow or Graeter’s, where great malts are always to be had.
So let me note that although Cumberland Brews, founded by Mark Allgeier in 2000, is justly known for its superb lineup of beers, the brewpub dishes up a chocolate malt that deserves to be famous. It’s a half-pint of creamy heaven, with a fine chocolate flavor and a hefty dose of malt. Best of all, that malt is a byproduct of the brewing process, skimmed from the surface during the production of Nitro Porter. It’s a great drink.
In fact, nearly everything you’ll drink at Cumberland Brews will be great. Head brewer Cameron Finnis has a creative touch that yields a wonderful list of staple beers as well as intriguing and pleasing seasonal options. Recently the pub has been pouring a basil wheat ale and a coconut porter of exquisite subtlety — beers that provoke the palate with exotic background notes, but in such a fine balance that neither ever gets cloying; a person could spend an evening with either one and never get bored. But why do that when there are so many intriguing choices on the blackboard?
It’s a pleasantly scruffy, crowded place where folks perch for hours on the sidewalk, at the bar, at the row of tables on the main floor, or in the bigger space upstairs. Wherever you sit, expect casual, friendly service that’s attuned to pub-time, where socializing is a higher priority than getting in and out in a hurry.
That blackboard also includes kitchen manager Wendy Gilbert’s menu. Here again, there are staples and specials.
At a glance, the Cumberland Brews menu resembles standard pub menus, with bar dishes like beer cheese ($7.95), nachos ($7.95) and flatbread pizza. But the beer cheese comes in two variations, a mildly spicy original and a fiery version made with habaneros. The nachos — a vegetarian-friendly black bean version — are topped off with an excellent spinach queso and served with habanero salsa and cilantro sour cream.
The pizza is vegetarian-friendly as well, with seasonal veggies and an excellent house-made marinara. A falafel patty with a grilled portobello and pepper jack cheese ($10.50) makes a fine veggie alternative to the excellent bison burger ($11.50).
Whether it’s the fried fish sandwich (flounder on rye) with a Cajun-inflected tartar sauce ($11.50), that Louisville classic fried bologna with American cheese ($7.95) or a smoky pulled pork sandwich ($10.25), the food is prepared with attention to detail and strong leanings toward bold flavors. Chicken wings (five for $5.95, 10 for $9.95) come in jerk, honey-chipotle, Thai and Buffalo.
The Thai wings — topped with crumbled peanuts and fresh green herbs — boast the deep, complex flavors you’d expect to find in an excellent Thai restaurant, and the Buffalo wings have all the blunt, single-minded heat you’d expect from a fiery red sauce. If you have a group, sipping beers and sampling all the styles is a sticky, satisfying endeavor.
The specials always include a quesadilla of the day ($9.95). Southwestern flavors get ample attention, with items like fried green tomato tacos ($8.95), and fish tacos with moist flounder.
I’ve never eaten a meal at Cumberland Brews that didn’t tingle my palate. Sometimes it’s the red heat of the Buffalo chicken sandwich with oodles of crumbled blue cheese ($11.25); other times it’s the guacamole and habanero salsa with fresh tortilla chips ($7.95).
Salads get plenty of attention, from the Cumberland Pub Salad ($5.25), big enough for sharing, to a more elaborate dinner salad ($11.95) with greens, grilled chicken, sliced almonds and crisp, tart slices of green apple.
Cumberland cognoscenti know there’s a complex schedule of discount offerings. A family-friendly menu dishes up free food for kids under 9 who dine with an adult.
If those kids are like me, they’ll want to end their meal with a malt ($3.50). But if that’s not to your taste, one of the current beer offerings, Ameade Wathen, with a background hint of blackberries, strikes me as a perfect way to end a meal.
You can email freelance restaurant critic Marty Rosen at firstname.lastname@example.org.