“I love sitting in here,” said my friend, and I had to agree. We were having lunch at Freehouse, the North Loop newcomer — and most ambitious project, by far — from the Blue Plate Restaurant Co., the growth-minded dynamos behind the Edina Grill, the Lowry, 3 Squares and other popular (and populist) destinations.
Seriously, what a great room. It inhabits the massive loading dock of a historic biscuit bakery, and its voluminous levels of exposed brick and raw concrete are a loft-dweller’s dream. Arranged in gently cascading tiers, the bar and dining rooms capitalize, like all get-out, on the show-and-tell side of the contemporary dining-out experience.
And not just people-watching. In keeping with the building’s industrial past, a design team from the Minneapolis office of Gensler — led by Kate Levine, Betsy Vohs and Courtney Armstrong — has treated the fascinating mechanics of beer-making as a three-dimensional storyboard.
The trio didn’t forget their sense of humor. Why not approach the challenge of storing 72,000 pounds of malted barley outside the front door (and what is clearly destined to be a boffo patio) in a galvanized corrugated iron silo? It might be the city’s cleverest restaurant signage, and it gives the neighborhood a delightfully kitschy landmark, a 30-foot campanile of sorts, and a sly visual shout-out to the state’s agribusiness roots.
Or why not cover a ceiling in sawed-off beer kegs? Or christen that room after the Minnesota congressman most associated with Prohibition? Then anchor it with a 4- by 6-foot portrait of Rep. Volstead, his Puritanical image — right down to a prodigious mustache — rendered in beer bottle caps, a la Chuck Close? (the artist is Jason Hammond of Bolster, the Minneapolis branding firm also responsible for the restaurant’s snappy graphics, including some attention-grabbing images projected onto the walls).
There’s even a free parking lot, a major asset for anyone who has dared to immerse themselves in the frequently Olympian feat of seeking an open meter on the neighborhood’s streets. And for all of its big-box square footage, the dining room still manages to maintain relatively decent conversation-friendly acoustics, a minor miracle.
Think of it this way: If Freehouse were a person, and that person was prone to wearing message T-shirts, theirs would proudly read “Design Matters.”
Best with beer
Chef Breck Lawrence’s menu covers nearly as much acreage as the dining room.
The kitchen excels when it’s reacting to brewmaster Tim Piotrowski’s efforts. Burgers, for starters. One of the neighborhood’s better renditions is a luxe blend of brisket, chuck and sirloin that’s fortified with both duck fat and a generous dollop of butter infused with Piotrowski’s malty stout. The whole shebang is slipped into a sturdy house-baked, cornmeal-crusted English muffin, and the results more than merit its “$1,000 Burger” name. The actual price tag is $15, and well worth it.
A lean and juicy bison burger is wisely embellished with a punchy aioli and a sweet tomato jam. The turkey burger, brimming with zesty Thai-esque flavor accents, is fantastic. And Lawrence finds a way to enlist the brewhouse’s spent barley by mixing it with quinoa to form an offbeat-in-a-good-way veggie burger.
A number of communal dishes also impress. Spreads of dill-kissed and teasingly smoky trout, or cool shrimp in sour cream, or fat-laced pork, are all dressed up and ready for a photo shoot. Are they scrupulous renditions of the genre? No. But they satisfy, and props to their crispy lavash or a slightly nutty whole-wheat bread, which is prepared using more of the brewhouse’s spent barley.
I’ll never be able to consume another cheese curd without instinctively wanting to reach for Freehouse’s quince jam. Trendy bone marrow makes an appearance, and while the oyster selection isn’t huge, they’re notably fresh and presented with care.
Up and down, and up
Salads — particularly a kale version of the Chinese chicken salad, and a twist on the ever-popular tuna-white-bean combo — are another plus, although I never encountered one that wasn’t overdressed.
The main dishes are a bit of a minefield. Encountering an aversion to the same-old, same-old (rabbit getting the fried chicken treatment, a vegan/gluten-free pho, chile-boosted collard greens) is encouraging, but the outcomes frequently disappointed.
Salmon, pork and lamb all had their issues. A lobster-loaded mac-and-cheese was an unpleasantly gloppy mess, and no self-respecting food truck would claim ownership of the greasy shrimp tacos.
Instead, steer toward the basics: slices of a cooked-to-order steak paired with Cheddar-filled pierogies and a dash of fiery horseradish, crispy fried cod with thick-cut fries and a springy mash of peas and mint, a fine plate of rotisserie chicken and mashed potatoes.
Breakfast, and its served-all-day permutations, is another definite highlight. It’s not just the sun streaming in through the room’s seemingly endless windows, although that’s a big plus. It’s also the menu’s most consistently pleasing segment.
Dishes range from tried-and-true (eggs any style with crispy hash browns and first-rate bacon, tender buttermilk pancakes, an eggs Benedict that imaginatively deviates from the classic formula without going overboard, a breakfast sandwich that coffeehouses everywhere should emulate) to more idiosyncratic choices (a grilled sausage platter with all the fixings, a toad-in-the-hole with succulent lobster, gnocchi with poached eggs). The brewhouse’s spent grains are funneled into a terrific flapjack, and even something as basic as a frittata is well-handled. Best of all, nearly half of the a.m. menu is served late into the night.
Prices can be oddly off the mark. Four slices of ciabatta dipped in egg and grilled should not cost $11, but then those shareable spreads chime in at a very reasonable $9. At the bar, a dozen guest beers — a savvy and ever-changing selection of locals, nationals and imports — all feel about $1 too much; meanwhile, Piotrowski’s initial quartet of very drinkable brews are sold in consumer-friendly $2, $4 and $6 pours.
Desserts? I can’t. With two exceptions: a dense brownie, wickedly dressed with bacon, flaky salt and a swoosh of rich caramel. Oh, and a trio of simple and rather lovely chocolate truffles, although two bucks a pop is treading squarely into B.T. McElrath territory, and these are no B.T. McElrath confections.
The staff is a major draw. The greeting at the door routinely exhibits the kind of enthusiasm level normally followed by an Amway sales pitch. If the wait staff — decked out in denim and leather suspenders — doesn’t always demonstrate the nuances of table service, they certainly bring their most accommodating attitudes to work.
Great room, nice people, decent everyday fare. The combination has clearly struck a chord in the neighborhood. Isn’t that what a local watering hole is all about?
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