Best New Restaurants 2015: No. 1 - Público
Opening a restaurant isn’t easy. Each year, hundreds give it a shot – and not everyone succeeds. Some, however, aren’t just surviving; they’re killing it. In the last year, we ate our way through newly opened restaurants from Alton to Ballwin, compiling a list of places that serve the food and drinks we can’t get out of our heads. They bring something different and exciting to the scene – and they do it damn well. While technical excellence was a must, the service and ambiance also had to win us over. Office debates nearly came to fisticuffs, but at last we agreed on St. Louis’ 11 best new restaurants of 2015. Clear your schedule and book your reservations; you’ve got a lot of eating to do.
The world stops when you enter Público, stepping away from the controlled chaos of the Delmar Loop. Here, chef-owner Mike Randolph invites you to luxuriate in the finer things through an innovative Mexican- and South American-inspired menu unlike anything St. Louis has seen before.
The kitchen and bar teams refer to Randolph as “Coach,” a title that goes far beyond his pre-service pep talks. “You’re only as good as your team,” he said with an Eric Taylor gleam in his eye. This is not a platitude – the kitchen is structured to support and challenge its cooks as much as its diners. A cook who works hard at Público will go far in Randolph’s world. “I’m a firm believer in the fact that you can’t teach attitude,” he said. “If somebody has a good attitude, and they’re not turned into a rock star, then that’s my fault.”
When enthusiasm to learn can outweigh culinary school credentials, Randolph has to be prepared to invest long-term in cooks. That’s no easy task in an industry where turnover can be swift and frequent. What’s made it possible at Público isn’t a curriculum or corporate training system, Randolph said. It’s his even-keeled chef de cuisine, Brad Bardon.
“Brad’s just as cool as the other side of the pillow. I’ve never seen him get angry, certainly never seen him yell,” Randolph said. “He gets along with people. The servers love him; the cooks love him. He’s a dream come true.”
The yin and yang of their creative partnership shapes Público’s entire menu. “Brad was extremely conservative, and I was about as far on the opposite end of that spectrum as you can possibly be,” Randolph said. “So he was here,” – Randolph stretched out his right arm – “and I was here.” He extended his left arm, then brought both hands together. “And Público is here, in the middle. … It’s no longer Brad’s food or my food. It’s Público food.”
And just what is Público food? Imaginative, yet tight and reliable, the distinctive menu offers reassuring familiar dishes, like tacos and guacamole arepas. But these serve as an approachable entry into Randolph and Bardon’s world rather than an alternative to adventurous dining. “We have no interest in being a strip-mall Mexican restaurant or just a taco place,” Randolph said. “Tacos are a part of what we do, but they don’t by any stretch of the imagination define us.”
Público is defined by technique rather than a signature dish. The roaring wood-fire oven visible in the open kitchen touches almost everything on the menu. Cooking with something as temperamental as fire is notoriously difficult, and Público’s consistency showcases Randolph’s masterful execution.
Though a few small plates are available, think of all the offerings as a build-your-own tasting menu. Try as many dishes as possible and encourage your dining companions to share. Be brave and order the baby octopus – even texture-phobes can get behind these tender little bites of intense umami flavor. Dishes that sound tame will surprise you. A simple order of leeks arrived as a work of art, decorated with bright roe and surrounded by crema that demanded to be licked from the plate. A more substantial whole fish (a market option meant to be shared between two or more guests) is fire-roasted, simple perfection.
The esteemed bar program headed by bar manager Nick Digiovani will encourage you to share as well, since it’s almost impossible to choose just one inventive cocktail. Classics like El Diablo (Espolón Blanco tequila, lime, cassis and ginger beer) are offered alongside a menu of peculiar house creations. Try the Windy City Mezcalero for a strange, smoky herbal drink made with Del Maguey mezcal, Besk (a Swedish wormwood liqueur) and sugar.
Drinks and dishes rotate aggressively. If you haven’t dined at Público since doors opened in March, you won’t recognize most items currently available. Some favorites are gone in a flash, like the delicate cobia ceviche, served in a slurpable tomato water. Público’s heavy rotation is due both to seasonality constraints and Randolph’s commitment to keep his cooks on their toes. “Monotonous things lend themselves potentially to complacency in the kitchen, so we try to change things up,” he said.
Servers hate it, joking that the moment a dish becomes popular, Randolph pulls it from the menu. “And it is kind of the truth,” Randolph admitted. “I like to keep my cooks fresh, keep them trying new stuff.” If Randolph and Bardon are behind it, we’ll happily keep trying the new stuff, too.
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