Public House working to find its identity
In dining, as in dating, sometimes a first impression can sweep you off your feet. Then after a few dates, you'll place that restaurant squarely into one of two types: either the delectable and dependable type you can't wait to move in with or, as with the Public House on Washington Avenue North, the one you date right before you decide to settle down: food that at times is artistic, confident, and thoughtful, but also capricious, impulsive, and salty.
The Public House resides in a space that has been, historically, unlucky in business. Operating for a few years as Java J's Coffee and then the blink-and-you-missed-it North Washington Cafe, the storefront has always had a bit of an issue with creating a strong identity among the other knockout Warehouse District options for diners and drinkers. To circumvent that issue rather than face it head-on, both restaurants tried to accommodate every possible audience, from all-day coffee-drinking freelancers to the grab-and-go lunch crowd and finally to late-night craft-beer drinkers. The result, as is often true when you try to please everyone, was that they ended up pleasing no one—at least not enough to maintain a steady stream of business. On the plus side, the renovations and new equipment (except for the remaining all-electric kitchen) meant the sky was the limit for the next restaurant to move into the space.
When the Public House first opened, its menu had a distinct Mexican influence and a focus on small plates, something new to the immediate neighborhood. But with chef Paul Johnson recently relocating from Victory 44, the plates have become more substantial, and some items have taken on a classic American spin, hinting at the desire to become a full-blown dinner spot. That may prove challenging, as Johnson currently is able to prepare only certain proteins, like shrimp, on site. All other meats are cooked, by Johnson, in a separate commercial kitchen space and brought to the Public House kitchen. There are remnants of the old menu, notably a variety of crisp and melty quesadillas—an ideal bar food, but incongruous with the rest of what is now offered. That, along with a few other misplaced or poorly executed dishes, unfortunately contributes to the feeling that the Public House hasn't quite "found itself," except, like most deliciously dangerous boyfriends, when it comes to booze. But we will get to the drink selection soon. Let's start with the dishes in which the Public House behaves like a reliable partner: comforting, consistent, and mature.
The shepherd's pie, with its decorative peaks of hand-piped mashed potatoes nestled closely together to create an even, golden crust, was stick-to-your-ribs delicious. I was surprised to cut away the top and see only gravy and meat beneath, but my British dining companion was, to borrow a phrase, "chuffed" to not be bothered with any green stuff. Vegetarians might be similarly chuffed to know that the Public House offers a meat-free version of the dish, featuring plenty of veggies. A light and playful pear salad was another successful plate, with rich bourbon-braised fruit, pungent blue cheese, and crunchy sunflower seeds atop a mixture of endive and other greens. But the menu item most representative of the reliable partner was the truffle mac and cheese, nearly as good as the Red Stag's lobster version but a little less of a show-off.
Desserts were unexpectedly good. At a place with a smallish, developing menu, sweets are sometimes an afterthought, or are premade, shipped in, and only sliced in-house. The Public House's were well-crafted and intelligently portioned, including a luscious bread pudding and a mini mocha trifle, served in a sort of oversized shot glass with rich layers of chocolate cake, coffee-infused chocolate mousse, and a chocolate-covered espresso bean. The thick, almost ice cream-like texture of the dulce de leche mascarpone mousse had a similar presentation and was accompanied by a tiny spoon with an even tinier dot of buttery caramel resting in the base.
And now for the plates that called to mind the ill-advised rebel you date just to "get it out of your system." The hillbilly spring rolls, a brand-new starter, were an inventive but not totally successful take on a Vietnamese classic. The rice paper rolls are stuffed with sweet-and-sour coleslaw and cold pulled pork with a garnish of sharp Daikon radish sprouts, cilantro, and house-made barbecue sauce for dipping. Though the combination of flavors was fascinating, the texture of the pork was muddy, and the thick, tomatoey sauce overpowered the dish. The beef carpaccio was similarly complex, with boquerones (marinated white anchovies), raw onion, Parmesan, and micro greens. It makes perfect sense as an elegant small plate from a kitchen that is limited in its ability to cook proteins onsite, but the tenderloin's sear had started to creep almost to the middle of the meat, giving it an undesirable texture. The strong flavor of the boquerones distracted from the beef, and the crushed Corn Nut garnish added nothing but confusion to the dish.
The chile verde with chicken and black bean soup would have been better without such a heavy hand in garnishing. There was so much sour cream on top that it cooled the soup to room temp before we got two spoonfuls down. The mushroom bisque had a great hearty, deep flavor but was much too thick, almost the consistency of baby food, and had an unappealing taupe color. More cream to thin it out and it could be identified as a bisque once again. The stuffed pork loin was an impressive plate to serve at just $12, but the salty meat was disappointingly dry. I did find myself wishing there were more of the braised, bitter collard greens on the plate.
Aside from offering a decent array of vegetarian items and showing the promise of a menu with a clearer focus, the Public House's real strength is its beer selection and wine list. It offers a number of beers seldom seen in bottles at your average bar, let alone on tap, including Lucid Air Blonde Ale from Minnetonka and the super-hoppy Lucette Easy Rider from Menomonie, and a small, beautiful bar at which to sample them. With better visibility and more consistency in the quality of food coming out of the kitchen, the Public House could easily be the kind of restaurant you could introduce to your parents, but for now it may need to do a little soul-searching and hone in on exactly what it is that makes its food special.
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