Since it opened in 2009, two key things have stayed consistent at the 100-seat Publick House in Mountainside: the welcoming blaze in its wide, stone fireplace (even in summer) and its well-stocked and serviced bar.
Those assets have made this no-reservations spot a local magnet. Our group and others happily killed 45-minute table waits on cushioned fireside benches. My chai margarita was balanced and bright.
Decent burgers, steaks and fries would complete this cozy picture. But from the get-go, owner and Jersey native Bernie Goncalves has aimed higher.
“I wanted to create a gastropub that was stylistically in step with New York,” says Goncalves, 44. “We source great ingredients and continually work to elevate the food.”
Since Publick House opened, four chefs have come and gone. Late last year, Goncalves hired two co-executive chefs to reboot the fare: Nick Greiss, 31, briefly executive chef of the new Pharmacie in Montclair, and before that, sous chef of Millburn’s Common Lot; and Greiss’s friend and mentor, Klaus Kronsteiner, 55, formerly of Hudson Hall in Jersey City and Chez Catherine in Westfield.
The duo “play off each other creatively and fine tune each other’s ideas,” Greiss says. Too often, however, their efforts add up to overkill. My beef tartare starter masked the diced filet mignon under a thick mustard aioli spiked with chopped shallots, capers and chives. Tuna “crisp” suffered the same fate. Coated in spicy mayo and drizzled with wasabi aioli and a soy reduction, the tartare languished, warm and somewhat pasty, on not-so-crisp fried sushi rice. Bland blue cheese dressing stifled a potentially enjoyable kale, apple and shaved brussels sprouts salad.
Greiss and Kronsteiner doused otherwise skillfully rendered shrimp and grits in a Cajun-style sauce with beef stock—a messily tasty concoction as subtle as chili con queso. Mirin-soy-ginger glazed pork belly on a corn tortilla with creamy American-style slaw and a smear of sour cream was an international conflict needing NATO intervention.
Entrées fared somewhat better. We enjoyed a juicy frenched chicken breast with veal demiglace as well as the Publick House burger, a beauty topped with sweet onion jam, Worcestershire aioli and sharp white cheddar. No complaints about the 14-ounce Niman Ranch strip steak, other than the $42 price. Like the burger, it came with ultra-crisp, perfectly salted shoestring fries.
More complex dishes were misguided. Braised yams and a dense, Thai-inspired laksa sauce muted a sesame-crusted tuna steak. Chicken thighs wallowed in gravy reminiscent of canned cream of mushroom soup. (What was a chunk of leaden jalapeño-bacon-cheddar cornbread doing on the plate?).
Scallops, well cooked and actually under-sauced, failed to converse with a scattering of tiny beets and hen-of-woods mushrooms. Squiggly strips of beer-battered cod—Publick’s take on fish and chips—had no hint of crunch. And a $26 shepherd’s pie disappointed, with overly salted pomme purée rosettes topping a gravy-starved muddle of dry lamb cubes and mirepoix.
Though Greiss calls Kronsteiner a “world class chef,” there was little evidence of such skills. Options on our visits were limited to a dull chocolate mousse, a near flavorless chestnut tiramisu made with packaged lady fingers, and gelatos and sorbets (not house-made). Chocolate gelato underpinned a decent, if unexciting, Heath Bar sundae.
Ever ambitious, Goncalves says he plans to relocate Greiss and Kronsteiner to a new venture he will open in Gillette later this year. From Gillette, the duo will oversee a new chef soon to be installed at Publick House.
They’d all be wise to nail the basics before moving forward.Click here to leave a comment
Price Details:Appetizers, $11-$19; entrées, $17-$42; desserts, $7–$10
Service:Friendly, efficient, informed
Wine list:Excellent cocktails and selection of whiskeys; 21 wines by glass, 15 beers on tap