Public Kitchen + Bar, the Lowertown newcomer in St. Paul, isn’t a particularly innovative or even standard-setting restaurant.
Not that it seems to be aiming for either of those heights. Instead, descriptives such as competent, reliable and crowd-pleasing come to mind.
That’s not a backhanded compliment. In downtown St. Paul, these are semiprecious dining-out commodities. Besides, downtown’s 7,000-plus residents could use a few more homes-away-from-home where they can drop in for a satisfying dinner on a regular old Tuesday night.
Chef Greg Johnson’s résumé includes stints at Kincaid’s and Palomino, and that corporate background, with its something-for-everyone impulse, imbues his work at Public.
You’re in the mood for a burger? Fine, Johnson turns out a first-rate iteration, a half-pounder finished with a pleasingly sweet-hot pepper jam and swoon-inducing bourbon-glazed bacon. Have a hankering for ribs? Generously seasoned pork is coaxed until it’s easily nudged off the bone. Pot roast? Done, nicely, an overnight version, the mouth-melting beef mellowed by bone marrow.
Steak? There are two, and both cuts would feel right at home at a better-than-average steakhouse. Scallops? Yep, seared to a butterscotch sizzle, with plenty of pearly juiciness remaining.
There’s nothing wrong with building a menu on everyday standards — they’re standards for a reason — but good for Johnson for stepping outside this mainstream, formulaic mode.
Starting with a handful of pastas. The menu’s most impressive dish pairs just-right linguine ribbons with sweet, tender lobster and delicate traces of tarragon and lemon. Toothy ravioli is stuffed with chicken and served in a broth with a sneaky vinegar kiss. Pillowy potato gnocchi is dressed with a colorful vegetable ragout.
He’s also obviously pouring his all into the lovely soups, whether it’s a hearty tomato, a supple and artfully garnished meld of cream and mellow Brie, or a steaming bowl of fragrant, winter-defying onion dreaminess. Grazers can satisfying themselves with a selection of house-made charcuterie, the assortment nicely embellished by tart pickled vegetables and a trio of tangy mustards. Johnson also has a way with maximizing salad optics. We eat with our eyes, right?
A few minor tweaks would yield a major impact. Biscuits peppered with Cheddar and jalapeño — such a great idea — fell shy of tenderness (two thumbs up on the accompanying pepper jam, however). A ceviche was a total eye-grabber, but captured little of the scallops’ inherent sweetness.
Crab cakes felt overworked, and a plate of tempura-battered calamari arrived as an unappealing — and barely room-temperature — mess. Someone seared the life out of a slab of salmon. Grits came off as gluey rather than creamy. “Generic” best describes the cheese plate (disappointing, given our region’s cheesemaking prowess), and the clunky desserts could use an overhaul.
With weekend brunch undergoing a mini-renaissance in restaurants across the Twin Cities area — seriously, it’s the new happy hour — Johnson seems to be a stride or two behind his competition. Along with revisiting a half-dozen lunch items, the menu adds nine familiar a.m. options that bear the barest, faintest trace of invention: a whiff of basil pesto in an otherwise straightforward eggs Benedict, standard-issue French toast dressed with pecan-scented butter, a hearty pork gravy smothering those aforementioned (and, I’m sorry to say, stale) biscuits. Perfectly serviceable, but hardly earth-shattering.
All in the amenities
Still, Public has other ways of garnering affection. For starters, there’s the can-do service staff (under the direction of Mike Herstine, a McCormick & Schmick’s and Palomino vet), which uniformly exudes an infectious, we’re-glad-to-be-here attitude.
It also helps that the restaurant is wildly good-looking. Eden Prairie-based Wilkus Architects has capitalized, and then some, on the building’s late 19th-century vocabulary of massive pine timbers, creamy brick, gleaming oak floors, rough-hewed limestone and other enduring, handsome-as-all-get-out materials.
The airy, wide-open dining room sits a half-flight up from the sidewalk, a perch that maximizes its view of one of one of Minnesota’s most urbane landscapes, magnificently framed through a pair of massive arched windows. One complaint: the glaring lighting, which totally blinded this loft-lover’s buzz. “Mr. Gorbachev, turn down that dimmer,” quipped my friend, doing his best Ronald Reagan impersonation.
Downstairs, the well-appointed lounge taps the Restoration-Hardware-goes-Gin-Rickey vibe that has become the standard in modern cocktailing. A major cause for celebration — we’re talking ticker-tape parade levels of jubilation here — is the way the lounge keeps cooking until 2 a.m.
Johnson has devised an eclectic array of libations-friendly noshes that are a vast improvement over their dining room counterparts.
Unlike the bar, which breezily asks $12 for a fine but not exactly life-changing sidecar or Sazerac, Johnson takes a far more reasonable approach to pricing, falling in the $8 to $15 range. I loved the tender, smoke-infused brisket sliders, the Cajun-seasoned catfish sausage done up as a souped-up hot dog, the crispy-crusted and thoughtfully embellished flatbreads, the roasted Brussels sprouts brushed with traces of Thai flavor foundations, and the instant replay of the does-the-trick charcuterie platter — and the terrific burger — served upstairs.
Late-night cooking in the sleepy 55101. Come on, how great is that?
Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib