Freehouse needs focus and fine tuning
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.
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.
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.
But how is the beer on its own, straight from the tap? Just okay, really. The consensus was that the darker, more full-bodied brews, like the nutty-sweet brown ale and the meaty but highly drinkable stout, were preferable to the almost watery kolsch and the unmemorable IPA. The brewing program is really just in its infancy, though, and as beer is a living, constantly evolving thing, it will be interesting to see how their brewing philosophy takes shape as they expand their lineup.
The staying power of Blue Plate's many other restaurants — Longfellow Grill, the Lowry, Groveland Tap, and others — indicates they understand what consumers want, but it's clear that at present such a large and varied menu is hard to manage for the Freehouse's kitchen. At the very least, they need to step it up on consistency and quality control. If they narrow their focus, the Freehouse could be a valuable addition to the growing restaurant row that is this stretch of Washington Avenue. There are plenty of pros to the overall experience, not least of which is the cool vibe of the converted warehouse space, the availability of comfy booths and bar seats even during peak hours, the all-day breakfast, the prompt and honest service, and decent and reasonably priced cocktails (if you're a fan of bourbon, try the Seelbach 1917 for something entirely unexpected), but when it comes to food there's still room for improvement at the Freehouse.
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