My friends and I often fight over what is the appropriate metaphor for a new restaurant's place in the dining scene. For Public Greens, Martha Hoover's new Patachou Inc. restaurant, it's like a well-built closet full of a lot of things that all look great together. But before we get into silly clothing-based metaphors for food, I'll give you a quick rundown of the nitty gritty details.
The staff we met called the place "kind of a cafeteria," which means orders are placed a la carte style, and prices go up based, obviously, on whether you get a single, double or triple order of your starter. This could be anything from roasted winter veggies to a green salad or wild rice. Then you can add a protein like beef, chicken or fish for an additional (and well worth it) upcharge. You can also order snacks like toast and hummus or arancini (both of which we did), plus cold-pressed juices, beer, bloody marys, espresso drinks and teas. They have a full dessert menu that we didn't dig into due to sheer lack of internal space, but includes indulgences in the signature French style of Patachou restaurants like pot du creme.
So how was it, you ask? In a word, great. Chef Tyler Herald has put together a menu filled top to bottom with really solid stand-alone dishes. Each of them has enough layers and nuance to stand alone as a solid dish, but they all taste really great together, too. It's in the spirit of "if it grows together, it goes together," so you'll find fresh takes on solid combinations like roasted beets, carrots and winter apples, but tossed with a bit of granola to keep the texture interesting. I had a wild rice dish with a beautifully balanced mouthful of rice, sun dried tomatoes and olives. Not exactly rocket science, sure, but it's always good to know where you can find well-executed new-old favorites on a constantly rotating menu. It's risk without risk, in the way that has been perfected by the Patachou brand: take something good right out of the ground, cook it in a way that respects the ingredient, and serve it in a new and interesting way. Every dish was well-done and every component of every dish was solid.
In a new twist for my dining companions and myself, we ate for the first ten minutes in complete silence. We were busy tasting all the ingredients in each of the bite, which was my favorite part of the meal. Herald is a guy who just knows how good high quality ingredients like spinach and olive oil and trout taste when they're minimally screwed around with. Our fried chicken thighs, soaked in buttermilk and dredged in your standard (but of course not) seasoned flour, would put some grandmas to shame. Similarly, the roasted vegetables maintained some crunch and were not swimming in a dressing, because good produce doesn't need a lot of seasoning. Turnover is quick when it comes to serving off the cafeteria-style line's small bowls, so you're always getting something made pretty recently.
The coffee was great, and the Bloody Mary was too big and spicy for me to finish along with my hummus and giant plate of food. This is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if you really need one. Mine was more tourism than medicinal, so I left it half-drunk on the table, though not because of the quality.
Bobbing my head along to the beat of the Jay Z track bumping through the polished white dining room (where, truth be told, they could use some soft diffusion for the noise) as I poured hot sauce onto my fried chicken, it struck me that this was supposed to be my generation's Patachou. When my parents are in town, I'll take them for a Broken Yolk sandwich and serve-yourself coffee. When my cool vegetarian and vegan friends are in town, I'll have an impressive spot that will definitely have something to please all parties.
The relaxed rules in a place where you seat yourself and the center of the room is dominated by a communal table mean that conversation with strangers is inevitable. Though the Patachou restaurant's ethos is a "student union for adults," nothing in the world feels more collegiate than navigating a buzzing dining room with a stacked tray in hand while trying not to faceplant and/or drop your lunch all over the floor. There is a shared anxiety in watching a stranger place their food—their prize!—on the table with bomb squad precision and, moments later, bomb squad-level sense of relief. It invites conversations, about the food, about the music, and of course, about which one of you has the greatest sense of menu judgement in a place where you aren't a diner so much as an a la carte remix artist of slow food.
Luckily, transporting your food to the table is the most precarious moment of the meal. As far as the menu is concerned, you're going to have to seek out foods you don't like to have a bad meal at Public greens. If you're vegan, vegetarian, steak-loving, vegetable-loving, or just generally try to stick with foods made with care by human hands with minimal processing, this is the place to go.
That said, you're probably going to spend more than you intended. It's the downfall of the a la carte menu, like the dollar section at Target. Like a foreign tourist trying to prove my proficiency at English, I just started naming things off the menu as my eyes passed over them (also I was very hungry), and quickly racked up a $35 bill including coffee—espresso, Bloody Mary, one grain, one protein and one snack order of hummus to share. To be clear though, I'm filing this under the troubling budget column labeled "Sorry Not Sorry."
If my job as a food writer and occasional critic is to manage expectations, then let me do so now: Public
Greens a younger, cooler Patachou for the generation that likes everything customized. They play rap, serve things in twee jars and Currier & Ives-style plates, and whip harissa into their potatoes. The seats are hard and shared, so the feeling is of a transient dining hall that's a stop along the way—a meeting place but not a destination. The Patachou group of restaurants has built an empire on making putting high-quality ingredients on each plate in interesting ways. Chances are, the two titans of the high-end, hipster-friendly brunch and lunch spots will be Public Greens and Milktooth—especially the loudly-Yelping folks who were awfully butthurt over Milktooth's no substitutions menu. Public Greens is the Netflix of veggie-heavy, vegan-friendly midday fare: get what you want and only what you want. You can spend $10 and get a small plate and a cold drink, or drop $35 and get a huge meal. It's up to you. Similarly to Milktooth, don't go if you don't like real food, like plates piled with whole veggies that have been peeled and cooked in oil and salt, and hummus with a pool of settled olive oil on top; Meaning it's going to cost more because more human, American hands have touched it than machines, and it tastes better for it.
The one thing that Public Greens has going for it that no other restaurant in town—and, to Hoover's knowledge, the nation—has is that 100% of the profits are going to feed food-insecure kids through the Patachou Foundation. Public Greens is essentially a fundraising engine for Hoover's effort to feed hungry kids. If the above descriptions of the whole foods menu don't sway you to give it a try, maybe the philanthropy will.
And don't get too bound up in the weird organization of the menu. Just let the nice people with the iPads tell you how it works. That's what they're there for and they're very nice.