The Strong Buzz


December 22, 2003

Public is the new Nolita hot spot from New Zealand chefs Peter Gordon and Anna Hansen, owners of The Providores in London. The pair have brought their head chef Brad Farmerie over the pond to the US to develop the New Zealand-meets-the-globe menu, and brought in the cutting edge team at AvroKO to build and design the space. Allow me to say thank you to Gordon and Hansen for bringing their talent to us.


Public is not your average new restaurant. Indeed, I was so intrigued, I went twice this week. The room is hot. No, really, it was very warm. But aside from the temperature, it is hot in terms of design, food, and crowd as well. The name Public derives partly from the design that incorporates interesting “Public Buildings” elements to the space like card catalogues from libraries (remember those from elementary school?), and walls of gilded mailboxes for guests to store their wine. The room has a very sleek feel, but it is not cold or austere. It manages to be cool, but to retain an earthy rusticity and a definite warmth. There are long bare lightbulbs that give the room a nice glow, and dark wood paneled walls, set against flagstone flooring. The bar area is large with more casual tables set up for walk-ins, while the main dining room consists of two rows of chocolate-fabric covered banquettes, and tables lined with white linen cloths that run lengthwise down the center of the table, allowing the espresso-toned wood to show up in stripes on either side.

As for the food, it is great to see a menu filled with many ingredients that I have never heard of, nor have never encountered on the same table, let alone the same dish. It’s quite a read. There is an entrée entitled “chestnut risotto cake with pickled butternut squash, pinenuts, manchego cheese, shimeji mushrooms and rocket ($18),” and an appetizer called “deep-fried minted mozzarella brick pastry with crispy Jerusalem artichokes and chipotle corn relish ($9 small/$18 large).” Come again? Aside from feeling no urge to order either of these dishes, I also felt the need for more punctuation in their titles, that were each a paragraph long.

But I don’t want to give you the wrong impression. I really like Public. The chef is taking chances and making us try things we aren’t comfortable with. At some point in time, whether it is with respect to food and wine, to a career, a relationship, or whatever, you have to take a chance and do something that scares you. Even if its something as simple as trying a dish of grilled kangaroo on a coriander falafel, you need to do go there, or else you might as well go back to bed, or eat at Olive Garden. So I am happy to be forced to eat at Public where the chef is a daring and able challenger to my safety zone.

Now, lets talk about that now (in)famous grilled kangaroo on coriander falafel with tahini lemon sauce and green pepper relish ($11). It was terrific. Clearly these people know how to handle a marsupial. Kangaroo meat is very lean so it needs to be served rare. It comes out tender and gamey and gets a nice jolt of acid from the green pepper relish. The falafel, which is more of a hockey puck-style than a golf ball-shaped spiced chickpea cake, is terrific—providing a great flavor and textural contrast to the tender meat. I would have eaten a half dozen of these. And in fact, may make a meal of these pups next time.

Another appetizer that is also a risky proposition is the seared foie gras on cardamom scone with lemon-ginger sauce ($20). This is a cool dish, and I like the concept of foie gras on a scone or biscuit and the sweet heat of a lemon and ginger sauce as well, but the chef ruined it for me by sprinkling it liberally with Maldon Sea Salt that completely drowns out the bright flavors of the sauce and the richness of the foie. I usually like a bit of salt to wake up a dish, but in this case, it masked the individual flavors so all I tasted was salt. But other dishes show that the kitchen has a tame and articulate hand, like a recent appetizer special, a gorgeous green tea-smoked salmon salad—a lovely dish of lush, silky, preppy-pink colored fillets of salmon (magnificent) served over a bright salad of nori and shaved green papaya.

The striped bass ($22) was also a winner, seared so the skin was crispy, it arrived on a bed of roasted caramelized parsnips, and a pile of fragrant sweet-spiced curried lentils, topped with a smattering of shelled edamame. The fish was fleshy and sweet, and the lentils were almost like an Indian dahl. Unfortunately a side dish of colorful beets simply roasted and topped with Parmesan and avocado oil was a big disappointment. While colorful and pleasing to the eye, these roots were completely flavorless and tasted like some sort of food-colored tofu molded in the shape of beets. Just plain awful.

Not so for the roast lamb chump (that would be ass of lamb, yes, at $23) served medium rare, sliced into medallions set on top of a mattress of fried goat cheese polenta, dotted with a cool and creamy yogurt mint sauce. Though the fried goat cheese polenta was a bit greasy, the dish is well conceived, as the chef is aiming (successfully, I might add) at teasing and playing with every taste bud – with contrasting levels of spice, temperature and texture. This technique is also at play in an inventive bar snack, a Spanish tortilla made with sweet potatoes, feta, smoked paprika and a lemon raita ($8). While I think the dish could benefit from being served warm, as it would be at a tapas bar in Barcelona, I liked the idea of it. The combination of sweet, salty and smoky flavors is clever, and spirited—a nice twist that wakes up this Spanish classic, and makes us pay attention.

Here’s the thing. While I don’t like every dish on the menu at Public, I like Public a lot. The restaurant has a killer design, and the room heats up with a swanky, hip energy making it an easy place to have drinks and linger over a bite at the bar. I especially applaud the kitchen for creating a menu that is one of the most bold and exciting reads in the city. Even if you don’t end up liking everything you taste, the kitchen shows us food that is new and fresh and it forces us to take chances and live a little outside the walls of the familiar.

Public, 210 Elizabeth Street, b/w Prince and Spring, 212-343-7011.

Andrea Strong