Dining With Moira Hodgson

Global Fusion Cuisine

Boggles the Mind and Palate

Not being a fan of rich, eggy dishes slathered in hollandaise, I rarely eat brunch. Instead, on weekends I often go to Chinatown, which is within walking distance of home. But on a recent Sunday afternoon, as my son and I were strolling down Elizabeth Street with wontons in mind, we drew level with Public and stopped to look at the menu posted by the front door. The words “grilled chorizo” acted like a magnet, and we went in without further ado.

Public’s menu was created by two New Zealanders, chefs Peter Gordon and Anna Hansen (owners of the Providores in London), and their head chef, Brad Farmerie, who’s American and has worked at Chez Nico and Sugar Club. Together, they have devised a menu of global fusion cuisine with combinations of ingredients – many of them Asian-that boggle both the mind and the palate. It’s one of those places where you stare at the tower of food on your oversized white plate when it arrives and wonder, “What on earth did I order?”

The restaurant occupies two levels of a former muffin factory, complete with sliding industrial doors and poured concrete floors. The clever design is reminiscent of a 1940’s school, post office or library. At the entrance stands a wall of numbered bronze postal boxes, a bank of wooden library index-card catalogs, and shelves of old cookbooks and nutrition manuals. We walked past the main dining room (where rows of wine bottles are stored on racks behind gauzy sheets of metallic cloth) and down a couple steps to the lounge area, which is dominated by a long walnut bar. There’s a slatted wooden ceiling, and gas lamps line the brick walls; a small lounge with a fireplace. The menus, stamped like an office order form, arrive on a clipboard. Even the pepper mill is a statement: a small, metal Rube Goldberg–like contraption with a twirly top that you pump up and down with your thumb.

For brunch, we were seated by the front picture window looking onto a garden of statues across the street. I ended up, of course, with a rich, eggy dish slathered in hollandaise: a wedge of aromatic “tea-smoked” salmon served Benedict-style with poached eggs, toasted sourdough and yuzu hollandaise. The grilled chorizo came with a curious mix of avocado, poached eggs and watercress in a sherry vinegar dressing. These were pretty good, and we finished by sharing a rather dry chocolate polenta cake with corn ice cream for dessert. The food was baroque, but interesting enough to make me want to come back for dinner.

When I did return and ordered the roast breast of duck, I got pink, tender slices-cooked perfectly-but they were lost in a maelstrom of ingredients that included soba noodles, wild mushrooms, Chinese celery, chayote squash and curry sauce. It was as if the dish been made by someone clearing out the refrigerator who had thrown together everything he could find in one dish, just for the hell of it. The flavor of the lamb “chump,” a cut from the rear loin, was overwhelmed by a mint-

yogurt sauce that tasted as though raw anchovies had been mixed into it. It came with grilled leeks and an oversalted polenta and goat cheese pancake topped with baby vegetables flavored with sumac. However, the venison-served with ginger-glazed carrots, rainbow chard and fig and walnut chutney-was very good, a study in simplicity by comparison.

On one side of the main dining room is a wood-paneled wall decorated with a metal horse’s head that looks like the sign for a boucherie chevaline in France (where, years ago, mistaking the signature horse’s head for a decoration, I bought the reddest and cheapest steaks I’d ever seen, only to discover later, to my horror-being English and of course sentimental about horses-that they were horse meat). They don’t serve horse meat at Public, but they do serve kangaroo. It’s grilled and cut in pink unsentimental slices laid out on a crisp bed of coriander-scented falafel and garnished with a creamy tahini lemon sauce and green pepper relish (I’m not making this up). It’s one of the best dishes on the menu. It’s a bit like buffalo-low-fat, with a pleasant, delicately gamy taste-and a lot nicer than horse.

Public turns out some very good fish dishes, too. Plump sautéed sea scallops with crème fraîche and crisp green plantains are wonderful. Also first-rate was a special of the evening: a sashimi of pristine, fresh Spanish mackerel with sesame oil. A mixed-seafood ceviche is a pleasant Thai-accented concoction, made with young coconut, Thai herbs, crispy shallots and spicy coconut water. Glazed eel, alas, was not so good. Where was the eel? It was cut in bits lurking under a murky pile of salad greens, all tossed in a soy dressing. By candlelight, it was impossible to distinguish what you were eating. The huge, juicy Maya prawns were a better choice, with wok-fried black beans, asparagus, lump crab and a spicy tomato-chili jam. And there’s a very good wine list of interesting New Zealand and Australian vintages to go with the food.

With the exception of the chocolate polenta cake, the desserts we tried were awful. Pavlova, the classic Australian baked meringue, came with a cranberry-

rosewatercompotethat tasted as though it had been made with Robitussin. Black sesame profiteroles with orangemarmaladeice cream, tahini yogurt and yuzu anglaise (no, I’m not making this one up either) stuck to the top of your mouth like KrazyGlue. Cardamom-scented panna cotta, served with lychee sorbet and hazelnut shortbread, was resilient as rubber under a layer of cloyingly sweet blood-orange jelly.

Escoffier’s words of advice-” Faîtes simple! “-do not apply at Public. This is surely one of the oddest restaurants I’ve come across, appealing and infuriating at the same time. If there’s one thing the kitchen can’t be faulted for, it’s a lack of chutzpah.

Dining With Moira Hodgson