Smoke and sophistication at Freedmen’s

12:00 a.m. Wednesday, May 8, 2013 Austin360 Eats

Survey the exploding Austin barbecue scene and you’ll find popular trailers with outdoor seating and free Lone Star, long lines of devotees and sheets of greasy butcher papered piled high with a tumble of meat. It’s an often sweaty environment. A roll-up-your-sleeves proposition.

West Campus area restaurant and cocktail bar Freedmen’s takes a new approach, with table-service and a refined environment. While they may have a more high-end aesthetic, Freedmen’s, which opened in December, still finds itself looking up at the smoking bastions of barbecue greatness in Austin.

Freedmen’s is Austin barbecue as seen through a vintage stereoscope. The main building of Freeedmen’s feels like a turn-of-the-century saloon that Daniel Plainview might frequent. Tuliped light bulbs ring the arch of the wooden bar’s massive mirror like a fireplace mantle. Cafe tables dot a room lined with buttoned-leather banquettes. A whiskey bar that tips its wide-brim hat to the ladies, Freedemen’s interior seduces with a rough-hewn elegance.

The bar seats 12, which is about as many as you can squeeze into the tiny tables. If you want to spread your elbows, step into the open courtyard, backed by a wooden building that looks like a church cathedral in a ghost town. The design elements of both indoor and outdoor spaces speak to the antiquity of the building. Originally constructed in 1869 by former slave George Franklin, the building served an important role in the early African-American community of Austin, including a stint as home to Reverend Jacob Fontaine, a community leader and newspaper publisher.

Co-owners Cuatro Kowalski, whose namesake restaurant-bar abuts Freedmen’s, and Longbranch Inn owner Jim Stockbauer have given an impressive restoration to the historic structure at 24th and San Gabriel Streets. Combining their knowledge of food and drink, the owners have created a rustic-yet-refined restaurant that celebrates classic cocktails and an iconic form of cooking and seems to draw more 30-something cocktail and barbecue lovers than curious courting students.

While the cocktails, such as a sultry Sazerac, bold Vieux Carré and fluffy Ramos Gin Fizz, have impressed, the food has sent mixed messages. Chef Evan LeRoy worked in the kitchen at Hudson’s on the Bend near Lakeway before taking his chops up to Hill Country BBQ in New York City. Back in the heart of Austin, LeRoy shows skill and innovation with a variety of charcuterie, side dishes and a quality pickling program, and turns out barbecue that ranges from good (brisket) to unappetizing (pork belly).

The slices of brisket ($9, for a half pound) move from lean and tame to flavorful, wild and out-of-control. Rippled waves of fat spilled into the amber fatty slices that somehow maintained a decent salt-and-pepper bark and nice caramelized crunch on the edges.

Excess fat gave deep flavor to the beef, but it ruined the pork belly ($14, half pound). It didn’t seem as if any of the fat had been rendered from the pork belly before smoking, and with no seared, grilled or fried edges offering a textural counterpoint, the white mass resembled wet shoelaces and melting marshmallow crème. Even the solid homemade barbecue sauce, a balance of black pepper and expressive vinegar, couldn’t salvage the overplayed pork.

Brisket can be ordered as part of the Holy Trinity Plate ($14) that comes with a pork rib and sliced sausage. The handmade sausage, a coarse blend of pork and beef, is one of Freedmen’s best smoked creations, though serving it sliced in small medallions takes the fun out of the snap-casing explosion. The ribs had a lot less character. With a faint pink smoke ring and a firm uniform consistency, the ribs gave little evidence to hours spent being relaxed by smoke. The tang, herb and acid of pickled dills ($3.50), green beans ($3) and jalapenos ($3) helped pierce the oil and smoke of so much meat. And, as a nice added touch, if you can’t finish the housemade pickles, staff will give you a lid to take your jars home.

You can order charcuterie individually or on a $16 board that includes head cheese, rillette, pate and local cheeses. The head cheese was all slippery gelatin and ragged sinew with flavor mostly coming from the herb and jalapeno jelly spread generously over top, but the chicken rillette was a pleasant surprise, topped with a sweet orange jam packed with zest. Spread the dill-flecked chicken on the crunchy toast and add a smear of cheese and you have yourself a great picnic snack. Freedmen’s forgoes the classic cheddar slab with a mix of jalapenos, pimentos and nodules of cold ground cheddar cheese that resemble orange Crayolas sent through a Play-Doh maker.

Freedmen’s doesn’t deliver sides as simple lip service: Ruby smoked beets ($6) come in a dollhouse skillet with a mound of tart, herbal goat cheese that melts with the earthy vegetables into a campfire kiss. Charro beans ($5) avoid the sin of sweetness with a comforting sauce braced by the superstar sausage and enlivened with cilantro, and pit chili ($6) comes out like stew, the tender meaty hunks mixed amid the oily sheen. The only side-car swerve was a jar of smashed potatoes that had almost as much grease as the sausage.

After a meal so rich with smoke, fat and grease that my face kept a healthy shine for hours after, Freedmen’s doesn’t take its foot off the smoker at the end of the meal. Instead of something tart or sweet, Freedmen’s puts a spin on barbecue-joint staple banana pudding by smoking the bananas and blending them with whipped cream that takes away the crunch from the Nilla Wafers. I got used to the smoke spin, but it was unforgivable with a salted chocolate mousse that carried a lingering buzz of unwelcome acrid smoke.

The owners of Freedmen’s face a challenge in luring customers with their blend of the artisanal and the archaic. Boutique barbecue can be a hard sell, especially in a town with masters like John Mueller (John Mueller Meat Co.), John Lewis (LA Barbecue) and Aaron Franklin (Franklin Barbecue) doing swift business with proven product. But Freedmen’s unique atmosphere, craft cocktails and the signs of promise in the kitchen may make this historic building relevant once again.