Freehouse needs focus and fine tuning

The newest Blue Plate restaurant tries to accommodate too wide an audience

Freehouse needs focus and fine tuning

Check out our photos of the Freehouse...

The Freehouse, a North Loop newcomer and the latest venture of the Blue Plate restaurant group, received a significant amount of attention in its first few weeks, none of it to do with food or atmosphere. Instead the early buzz was all about the Freehouse charging $7 for tallboy "guest cans" of Coors Light, PBR, and Bud Light — significantly more than you'd pay for a silver bullet at any other non-stadium or arena bar in the Twin Cities.

The short-lived gimmick hammered home the focal point of the Freehouse's concept — that they're brewing their own beer, a gutsy move when you're practically on Fulton's doorstep — but was abandoned not long after owner Stephanie Shimp justified the pricy guest can amid a steady stream of incredulous tweets. "Why would anyone even 'want' a National brand at a local brewery!" she tweeted. Shimp must have weighed the answers to her own Twitter musing, because as of our visits, the Freehouse has done away with those guest cans and mega-brewery brands altogether, and left only options from more respected, comparatively mid-sized breweries like TallGrass and Widmer.

Well executed pork rillettes boast a smoky and rich flavor worth exploring
Alma Guzman for City Pages
Well executed pork rillettes boast a smoky and rich flavor worth exploring


701 N. Washington Ave., Minneapolis
starters $8-$14; entrees $14-$24

The responsive (or perhaps defensive) move was a wise one, an indication that the owners are listening to feedback. If they continue to do so and fine-tune their focus, the Freehouse could be and really, might already be, the best family-friendly option in the area. (They have a separate kids' menu, drawing pads at the tables, and offer straws and covers for glasses.) But in its current state, the Freehouse is only halfway there: unsure whether its concept is that of upscale diner, neighborhood gastropub, or hipster cocktail bar, and about halfway there on the execution of the food.

It's very seldom that a multi-page, multi-sectioned menu is a good omen, and even with seven other restaurants under Blue Plate's belt, it's an awful lot to expect that a kitchen will produce refined, classic dishes like oysters mignonette and bone marrow on toast just as well as bar food like chicken wings (or, as they are called here, chix waangs) and cheese curds. At any given time they're also roasting chicken on a spit over an open flame; flipping pancakes and poaching eggs for a number of breakfast dishes; or simmering a vegan version of pho that our server, a self-described junkie of the Vietnamese dish, actually steered us away from ordering, admitting, "It's not my favorite, but it's better if you add a lot of hot sauce and other stuff to it."

At every turn the Freehouse is looking to accommodate as wide an audience as possible by attempting to do it all, which would be admirable were it not for the fact that too often the food just comes up short. Steaks and standard beef burgers were unevenly cooked with dry edges and cold centers; vegetable sides of cauliflower and Brussels sprouts were either unpleasantly mushy or so "al dente" they had to be cut with a knife; and the potato gnocchi and pierogi shells were strangely tough and chewy.

That said, the successful dishes piqued our interest in the Freehouse's possible future. If rabbit is going to be the next big thing in protein, this Kentucky-fried version is a wonderful introduction for the uninitiated. Though the meat itself could have benefited from an extra little infusion of flavor, it was moist and not at all gamey, and the exterior crust was crisp, nicely salted, and just a tad sweet from flirting with the pool of maple and hot chile sauce on the plate. The side of skin-on mashed potatoes passed muster, and the still-crunchy fennel slaw provided some nice textural contrast, but the mound of wilted Swiss chard was overpoweringly vinegary and lacked the bitter depth usually provided by braised greens. A smaller amount of that same green side, however, actually worked fine on the pork belly Benedict, effectively cutting through the richness of the egg yolk, Hollandaise, and the delicious fatty meat to balance everything out quite nicely. Also noteworthy in this dish were the super crisp, miraculously un-greasy, very well-seasoned hashbrowns — not an easy thing to find in these parts.

Check out our photos of the Freehouse...

Most all of the offerings in the "jars" section of the menu — little potted meats and other spreads — were crowd-pleasing. The Toast Skagen, made simply with thinned sour cream, dill, and chopped poached shrimp, was lemony and bright, a bundle of clean Scandinavian flavors spread on toasted brown bread made in-house with leftover brewing grains. We also liked the pork rillettes, smoky and rich against the crispy slices of baguette, offset by the sharpness of the mustard and cornichon. All the pots seemed to pair naturally with the Freehouse's beers too, which makes sense as most of them included some brew element. This idea is carried out well in other places on the Freehouse's menu: Kolsch batter on the fish and chips, hops-infused hummus, stout butter melted into a burger patty, and brew grains in the surprisingly light, marmalade-glazed pancakes as well as in the vegetarian burger, which achieved a nice crispness on the patty, but needed something a little creamier than romesco sauce to finish it. The integration of the house beer and brewing ingredients is one of the gimmicks the Freehouse should definitely continue to highlight.

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