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Down Underworld

At Public on Elizabeth, a bold — if sometimes perplexing — exploration of Australasian cooking.

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The public realm: An evening down under.  

My friend the Garbageman is one of those daring, exhibitionist diners who prides himself on his cast-iron stomach. No curry is too hot for the garbageman, no traveler’s stew too viscous or foul-smelling. The garbageman has eaten rattlesnake in Arizona, horse meat in Curaçao, and several helpings of broiled iguana in New Mexico, flavored, he recalls, with a nice chipotle sauce. The garbageman has never eaten kangaroo, however, which is why he was eager to visit Public, the very first Australasian restaurant to open on Elizabeth Street, in the bustling heart of Nolita. “I wonder if it’ll taste like ostrich,” he mused as we waited for the dish, which is listed as an appetizer. But kangaroo, it turned out, tastes more like delicately cooked squab than dry, gamy ostrich. The lean meat was cut in slivers, arranged on crisp falafel cake, and crowned with a spoonful of tangy green-pepper relish. The garbageman regarded his plate with suspicion, then took a bite. “This has got to be a little joey,” he said with a sigh. “It’s way too tender.”

Joey, of course, is the kangaroo equivalent of lamb, although our waiter assured us that the kangaroos served at Public are fully grown farm-raised animals, shipped in from the finest providers in the Southern Hemisphere. You’ll find New Zealand snapper at Public, pink sea trout from Tasmania, and New Zealand venison served with ginger-glazed carrots. It’s all served in a swank, oddly themed setting designed to evoke public institutions like schools and libraries. The two-level room used to be a bakery, and the proprietors have put in sliding industrial doors and hung trendy filament bulbs along the ceiling. Swatches of what appears to be cheesecloth cover the wine rack, and oil lamps line one of the brick walls. A wooden library-card catalogue has been placed by the coat check, and the menus are presented on clipboards and stamped like office order forms.

Happily, this oddly forced décor is transcended, for the most part, by the cooking of the American-born, London-trained chef, Brad Farmerie. Australasian cuisine, as he defines it, is an agreeable mishmash of American structure (everything’s arranged in a Portale tower), farm-fresh ingredients, and global (mostly Southeast Asian) spices and tastes.

The inventive kangaroo dish (the falafel was laced with a lemon tahini, and the tangy green-pepper relish tasted of Bobby Flay’s New Mexico) was accompanied to our table by a nourishing bowl of parsnip soup flavored, in the Indian style, with cumin and coriander, plus a rogue sprinkling of dried barberries. These were followed by a succession of Southeast Asian fusion recipes like seviche done in the manner of Thai seafood salad (with bits of squid, crisped shallots, and a spritzing of coconut water), a Thai-style green-papaya salad with tea-smoked salmon, and two fine raviolis flavored with pea shoots and pickled shiitake mushrooms and stuffed with a mixture of braised oxtail and escargots.

After bolting down the kangaroo, the garbageman took his time dissecting Farmerie’s ethereal foie gras recipe, which consists of duck liver slathered with ginger-lemon sauce and piled on a kind of scone (which actually looked more like a macaroon) spiced with cardamom and coffee grinds. The ultimate effect of this pricey ($20) dish didn’t add up to the sum of its elaborate parts (it tasted more or less like seared foie gras), so if you have to choose just one big-ticket appetizer off your clipboard at Public, try the grilled scallops ($14), which are served in a pool of crème fraîche with a drizzling of crisped green plantains. If you like salad (and even if you don’t), order the delicious mash of green beans, lentils, and avocado I enjoyed with a serving of the adventurous-sounding Tasmanian sea trout. The salad was bound with pomegranate molasses, avocado oil, and a platoon of toasted pecans, and the trout turned out to be pinkish and meaty, like salmon, with a light, freshwater taste.

Seafood, in fact, is a big strength at Public, a mild surprise considering the Southern Hemisphere’s outsize reputation for beef and lamb. But my order of lamb was cut in an unnaturally smooth tenderloin (called a “chump”), instead of the more traditional (and tasty) chop, and the grilled venison I sampled was tepid to the point of being cold. The seared striped bass, on the other hand, was fresh and tender and spiced with nam prik num (a Thai condiment made with chilies and green eggplants), sweet pickled cucumbers, and a dusting of samphire, which, in case you didn’t know, is also called sea fennel and has a passing resemblance to Japanese hijiki. There’s also a straightforward serving of New Zealand snapper (plated with fingerling potatoes and watercress), and an impressive tower of grilled Mayan prawns (served with black beans, crabmeat, and a dollop of Bobby Flay–style tomato-chili jam), which turns, as you disassemble it, into a kind of spicy-sweet seafood stew.

These dishes are hoisted to and fro at Public by the requisite crew of young ladies wearing silver nose studs (okay, one young lady wearing a silver nose stud) and roguish gents speaking in strange Australasian brogues. When it’s crowded, the service slows down, especially if you’re relegated (like I was, twice) to the impersonal upper-level dining area. You can avoid this by visiting Public for the superior weekend brunch, which includes novel delicacies like coconut-stuffed pancakes and a fine version of eggs Benedict made with tea-smoked salmon and hollandaise sauce flavored with yuzu. Yuzu doesn’t show up in any of the house desserts, which is a mild surprise, since everything else does. You can get panna cotta capped with an off-putting lime-wasabi jelly, blancmange swamped in orange blossoms, and a barely edible tart made with persimmon curds. The best of the bunch is a classic pavlova, made with whipped cream and delicious deposits of banana-flavored caramel. It’s a chewy, crumbly, sinful dish, and the perfect antidote, it turns out, to a gourmet dinner of kangaroo.

Public, 210 Elizabeth Street (212-343-7011). Dinner, 6 p.m. to midnight Sunday through Wednesday, 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday through Saturday. Brunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Appetizers, $8 to $20. Entrées, $18 to $25. All major credit cards.


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