When it opened 13 years ago, Public raised eyebrows with its Down Under menu of exotic eats like kangaroo. Now, that bravado seems to be giving way to something else — but what’s really happening is the expansion of ideas that were always present, says head chef Brad Farmerie, who opened the restaurant with his brother in 2003.
“In the beginning, it was sort of a hidden secret but we always had two or three vegan dishes and tons of gluten-free options, just because that’s the way I was ‘raised’ in London,” says Farmerie, recalling the lessons of chef Peter Gordon at the Sugar Club.
That means thinking beyond taking bacon off a salad (“then it’s not really the dish that you envisioned, is it?”) or being offered seasonally grilled vegetables as an entree (“womp womp”), both a common refrain when he was dining out around the city before launching Public. “It just shows that not a whole lot of thought went into it.”
“When we set up Public, we wanted to have two really weird bookends: One was a lot of cool vegan, vegetarian options, which we never really promoted but people were excited that we had them. And then the other was offal, game and guts and that cool stuff,” he says.
“Those two big bookends were always important to Public and a lot of that hasn’t changed — we’re looking more for the lighter side of that game and guts and building up the vegetarian, vegan-friendly side of it because that’s what I eat more often and that’s what I cook at home.”
Public remains about “adventure, unique, different.” But Farmerie is joining a growing list of chefs cooking from a personal place, whether it’s a response tohealth strugglesas with Marco Canora at Hearth, or issues like animal welfare and sustainability, which prompted Ravi DeRossi to beginconvertingall 15 of his restaurants and bars across the city into vegan concepts.
For Farmerie, changing what he eats was a matter of trying to keep up with his life. Two years ago, at the height of AvroKo’s expansion and having two young children ages 3 and 5 at home, he realized he couldn’t keep going the way he was. He decided to look for the answer in the kitchen, and said the results changed his health and fitness dramatically.
“We had decided to look into some of the health cleanses and dietary changes that other people were doing,” says Farmerie. “I’ve always had nasal trouble, aches and pains, and we looked at different cleanses and things and monitoring the dairy and gluten we eat.”
On the menu, this translates into breads made with potato and quinoa, rainbow trout with spirulina salsa verde (Farmerie says fish is the restaurant’s strong suit), charred carrots with lemon yogurt and dukkah, and ricotta cavatelli with carrot bolognese and kale pesto. Though he was never big on cooking with cream and butter, which tends to come by the “pounds and pounds and pounds” at many upscale restaurants, he’s pared that back even further. “My cooking has always derived inspiration from the Middle East, Asia and North Africa — those cuisines naturally have sauces and flavors that are complementary without being heavy,” he says.
Gone, also, is the three-hour production that was the restaurant’s tasting menu. In its place, Farmerie is small and large plates, plus snacks for the bar crowd, and a Feed Me option of “our favorite stuff off the menu with a lot of different presentations” ($65-$85), which is also tailored to each diner’s preferences. The wine list has been pared back significantly, with intuitive categories based on flavor rather than vintage.
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All of these changes are also intended to pare back the “certain level of formality” that settled in after Public earned its Michelin star in 2009, and make the space warmer and friendlier — more like sitting down to dinner at home than Going To A Restaurant.
The dishes are meant to be so accessible, in fact, that Farmerie hopes people take the ideas home with them. “If someone said to me that, ‘I came in to eat at Public and I was inspired to feed my family in a different way,’ I would probably hug them on the spot.”