a post in which I wished for more casual, interesting restaurants that also serve good beer here in the Capital Region, K and I made a trip out to the Berkshires. We'd been offered a couple days at a timeshare up on Jiminy Peak, and since neither of us is a winter sport enthusiast, we didn't spend all day and night on the slopes; we had the time to drive down the mountain for a familiar meal in Pittsfield one night, and took the chance to visit North Adams on our second night, where we had dinner at PUBLIC eat+drink.
I was drawn to Public immediately after looking at their menu online in the days before our trip; this seemed like just the kind of place I wished we had more of in the Albany area. There were a number of interesting, reasonably-priced dishes on the menu--from flatbreads to fish tacos to falafel--along with a rotating tap list certain to impress any serious beer drinker. I was sold, and it didn't take much to convince K once she saw the menu and the many glowing reviews of the restaurant.
Public is located on a brightly-lit corner in the small downtown of North Adams, a few blocks from the MASS MoCA. With the brick exterior, huge windows, and ornate doors, it's impossible to not feel a tinge of anticipation--the expectation that you're in for a good meal and a pleasant evening--as you enter Public.
I'm of the strong belief that in many situations, it's external factors--beyond the quality of the food--that make for fondly-remembered meals. Public is in a perfect location to capitalize on that. It's in an area that teems with tourists throughout the year, people visiting the area to look at art, enjoy nature, or visit their kids away at college. And the space really is beautiful; inside, you're struck by the wood-paneled bar, the open kitchen, and eye-catching artwork lining the exposed brick walls. A row of copper pots and pans hangs from the kitchen ceiling.
I ordered one of the eleven beers on tap, one I'd never seen before, the Sneak Attack Saison from 21st Amendment (you can find my review of that here). At one point, while K was using the restroom, I sipped the saison while staring out of the window in front of me--I could see the streets lit by the glowing lamps and the reflection of the action behind me: people enjoying themselves at the bar, flames shooting high from the kitchen. I hadn't even eaten anything and this was already an enjoyable experience.
This being a mini-vacation and all, we decided to go crazy and share two appetizers. Well, I wanted to try the Red Onion Rings ($5.95), but K thought it wise to balance that out with the Roasted Beet Salad ($6.95). The onion rings were a fine choice; really, I wish every restaurant served onion rings this way. The onions were sliced thin in-house and fried in a tempura batter that seemed to have a bit of salt and pepper seasoning. Compared to the bulky, from-frozen, white onion rings you get most anywhere else, the onion rings at Public were full of the sharper flavor of the red onion and thin enough to not be overwhelmed by huge amounts of greasy breading. Plus, there a lot of them--well worth the price.
The freshness of the beet salad was indeed a good contrast to the onion rings. A handful of beet slices were artfully arranged across a long, rectangular plate, on top of a spread of an orange-flavored yogurt. Atop that were slices of apple, crushed walnuts, and thinly-shaved candy-striped beets. Certainly attractive and creative, but the salad didn't really hit the mark. The beets were nice--there were a few pickled ones mixed in to provide a nice contrast--but the salad as a whole was void of any seasoning. It really could have used some salt and pepper to bring out the flavors; you could say this was the job of the yogurt, but there really wasn't much of it under the beets.
The lack of seasoning continued with K's entree. She moved up to the "Bigs" section of the menu to find the Pan-Roasted Salmon ($16.95), which was served over a celery-root puree along with fennel and lettuce. This was another dish with great potential, but while the celery-root puree was rich with flavor, there was only a small amount of it underneath the salmon. And without much of that to eat with the salmon, the fish was left exposed: it was overcooked and, once again, missing any seasoning. Just a sprinkling of salt and pepper during the cooking process could have helped immensely in bringing out the great flavor of the salmon.
I guess I had the right idea by succumbing to some unhealthier choices--first the onion rings, and then, for my main course, from the "Mids" section, the Fish Tacos ($9.95). I know it's a little strange to have a saison and fish tacos in the middle of winter in Western Massachusetts, but whatever--I'd been in the mood for fish tacos for a few days after reading something about them, and the ones at Public sounded quite appetizing: two tacos served in doubled-up corn tortillas with fried whitefish, a citrusy cabbage slaw, and avocado mayo (the menu also mentioned tomato salsa, but that didn't really seem to be involved in the dish; I tend to not like chunky tomato salsas on fish tacos, though, so I didn't mind).
Despite the fish being fried, not grilled, these were fresh and bright-tasting. They were packed to the gills, one might say, with several pieces of fish and a heaping amount of the cabbage. The avocado mayo added a real richness to complement the cabbage. Being a "Mid," this came with no side, but with the appetizers and the plumpness of these tacos, I was totally full when finishing my meal.
Well, as K says, it's easy to make something fried taste good. Public nailed it in that regard. They also got it right in terms of location, atmosphere, and beer. The prices are reasonable--I like that you can get some cheaper items that go beyond the burger/sandwich realm. So yeah, in those ways, I'd love it if a place like this opened in Albany (though it feels like it would fit better in Troy).
But I also can't help but be a little disappointed that a place with so much promise fell short when it comes to the food for one simple reason: lack of seasoning. Maybe I'm hyper-aware of this because I hear judges on shows like Top Chef harp on the issue of proper salting so much, but it really does make a huge difference when you're used to having your food properly seasoned. Doesn't mean our whole night was ruined; we agreed afterward that it was still a good time. And sure, I'd be willing to go back if we're in the area, get a beer, maybe try one of their burgers and more of those onion rings. But we won't be going out of our way to make that happen.
PUBLIC eat+drink is located at 34 Holden Street in North Adams, MA