In restaurant cooking, editing is everything. Decor is edited so that the dining space has a distinct feel. The menu is edited so that it has a clear focus. And each dish is edited so that it feels full and balanced, not overstuffed and confused.
At the heart of The Freehouse’s crisis is its identity, or its surplus thereof. Once you start flipping through its menu (ambitiously broken down into Oysters, Beer Bites, Jars, Greens, Handhelds, Mains, Sweets, etc.), you start to become aware not of the restaurant that The Freehouse is, but rather the four or five restaurants that The Freehouse wants to be.
It feels as though the initial conversation about the restaurant’s identity went something like this: “Hey! Let’s be Butcher & The Boar!” “No, let’s be Smack Shack!” “No, let’s be a tap room!” “Let’s be Nye’s!” “Wait — let’s be Borough!”
Ladies and gentlemen: They went for it. They went for all of it. And the result is a menu that pinballs from highbrow to lowbrow to Guy Fieri, with sometimes catastrophic results. Let’s start with the good stuff and work our way down into the chaos at the core of the restaurant.
When we arrived for our Friday night visit, The Freehouse was jumping, and the front of house staff were ready for it, greeting guests, holding the door open and — wait for it — sampling free pierogies for guests waiting to be seated. That’s hospitality. That’s the kind of small gesture that makes a good impression.
In fact, the staff at The Freehouse may have been the biggest overall highlight of our visits. They were unflaggingly friendly and seemed legitimately interested in making sure that all of their guests were happy.
The decor works, too: It’s got that exposed ductwork, cute little lights, openish kitchen thing going on, and that’s clearly (and sensibly) the Warehouse District look. Our only beef was the Brobdingnagian digital green FREEHOUSE sign that sheds light sufficient to color many guests a shade of unearthly green.
Also good: the beer. We tried all four of the Freehouse’s house-brewed beers and found them to be pleasantly drinkable. While they won’t be giving Lucid or Lift Bridge a run for their money, they were easygoing, balanced, relatively clean-tasting brews (pony, $2; middy, $4; pint, $6) that complemented the food. We most liked the No. 3 Brown — the bitterness and malt balanced well, and there was an unexpected raisin or date note that gave the beer a point of view. The Freehouse cask stout was smooth and mellow, the IPA small in spirit but amiable, and the Kölsch surprisingly funky on the nose but crisp and pleasant.
Reasonably good: the cocktails, which were, generally speaking, balanced and detectably boozy without being alcohol or sugar bombs. We particularly enjoyed the Yellow Jacket ($10; reposado tequila, St. Germain, yellow chartreuse, orange bitters, lemon), which was tequila-forward but had an engaging depth to it.
When we think “tartare,” we think of cubes of red, raw, high-grade meat with some sort of raw egg component and an onion component for contrast. So we were a bit surprised when the Bison Tartare ($13) arrived looking more like a pate: gray and homogenous. That said, it was tasty: creamy, balanced, rich, properly salted, and quite good when paired with the Dijon served on the side.
The Kentucky Fried Rabbit ($21) had a gently crispy exterior and a tender, pleasantly sweet, and mellow interior with no gameyness, toughness, or fat. It was one of the highlights of our visit, and while we don’t entirely understand how it turned out so nicely, we’re grateful that it did. The one ding against this dish is the mustard greens side (see below).
Much like the Kentucky Fried Rabbit, the rotisserie chicken (Roto-Bird, $16) was nicely cooked – lean, juicy, and not oversalted. It’s certainly a step above the rotisserie bird found at your local Lunds deli, but we probably wouldn’t write home about it. It was adequate. A salt lick for deer also came with it – oh, wait, we meant a kale salad with two depressing tomato slivers.
Let’s move past the question of whether the Jack’d Up Mussels ($14) were named by Guy Fieri or merely inspired by him. They were a mess, a one-dish metaphor for the general atmosphere of culinary confusion. The dish’s pumpkin curry was sweet beyond belief, and every mussel we tried — somehow — tasted different than the last. Some were fishy. Some were clean. Some were absurdly sweet. Some were nicely spiced. The dish’s golden raisins and sausage only confused the matter more. This dish made us long for Not At All Jack’d Up Mussels, consisting of good mussels steamed with a bit of white wine, garlic, and parsley.
When we hear the word “riblets,” we think of one thing and one thing only: Applebee’s. It’s a tribute to the schizoid nature of The Freehouse that it offers Korea-Town Riblets ($9), overly salty, one-dimensional, firm-to-tough logs of meat. Balanced against the sugar rush of the mussels, we were beginning to detect a theme: not-so-subtle and not-so-successful appeals to the salt- and sweet-craving pleasure centers of the brain.
Our “Animal Style” burger ($13) went wrong on a number of levels. The first mistake was referring to a classic thin-patty style of In-N-Out burger and then delivering a giant brick of meat. The second mistake was ignoring what should have been this burger’s two hallmarks (secret sauce and grilled-in onions) and instead presenting a giant brick of meat. The third mistake was suggesting that we get our burger cooked medium (which we went along with, regretting the choice when the burger emerged fairly dry). And the fourth mistake was that our burger was cooked unevenly — mostly pink on one side, brown through and through on the other.
We’ve always been told not to judge a book by its cover. Well, that fell by the wayside as soon as we laid eyes on the Brussels Sprouts ($8). The word murky came to mind. Swimming in a sea of oil, the leafy buds looked (and tasted) tortured instead of fresh and bright. They were also mushy, but managed to leave a burnt taste in our mouths. The bleu cheese component was muddled to the point of being obsolete; it was an empty promise. To rub more salt to the wound, the dates felt like an afterthought and insignificant: “Who are you? And what are you doing here?”
Sort of bad: When you order pho, you want to be pulled in many different (flavor) directions – hot, spicy, with a touch of citrus and mint. Everything should be firing on all cylinders. In this case, the Faux Pho ($16) slightly misfired. Based on looks alone, it was the most aesthetically pleasing dish: a bed of rice noodles surrounded by tofu, edamame, bean sprouts, and carrots, with the usual accoutrements (basil, more bean sprouts, jalapeños, lime) on the side. The broth had a subtle flavor that beckoned for more spice and vigor. It was safe and lacked any conviction. Needless to say, we added all of our jalapeños for some zip.
THE SO BAD THEY ACTUALLY MAKE A GREAT STORY
Beware the mustard greens side at The Freehouse: It tastes of vinegar and sadness. It’s a tough and over-tart salt bomb of a dish, and it made all of our tasters (on two different visits) want to physically spit the stuff back into our napkins. If you’re a food person, you’ll enjoy trying to decipher precisely what went wrong, but everyone else should stay far clear of it.
It’s rare when dessert evokes ancient gods of madness, dead but still dreaming, but the Meyer Lemon Meringue Cake of Cthulu* ($8) pulls it off. Ours arrived at the table with a meringue that had been torched black. “Do they usually leave the kitchen like this?” we asked the waitress. She seemed a bit uncomfortable. “Well, yes, but I know that it’s often more traditional to be more of a light brown on top.”
Here is why that is traditional: Light brown torched meringue tastes caramelly and toasted. Black torched meringue tastes like an ashtray. The blackened almonds on the back of the cake were even worse.
Would that a blackened meringue were this cake’s only problem, but our wedge of cake was so profoundly heavy that had it been thrown across the restaurant, it undoubtedly would have put someone in the hospital or broken a cash register. It weighed about 11 pounds.
Lemon desserts should evoke a ballerina en pointe; this cake evoked the hippo ballerina from Fantasia.
*Menu does not actually read “of Cthulu,” which is a shame.
The Freehouse’s Lobster Mac N Cheez ($24) is so spectacularly malconceived that it actually suggests an impish sense of genius, evidence of Alex Roberts winning a perverse drinking bet or Landon Schoenefeld in the worst mood of his life. When you hear “lobster mac and cheese,” you think: rich, tender mac and cheese (possibly lightly truffled) and large pieces of sweet, tender lobster meat.
But that’s not what you get here. Your 24 dollars buys you the following:
Three jumbo pasta shells, fried to the point of toughness …
stuffed with tiny, tough shreds of lobster …
and an unidentifiable grainy, lumpy mystery substance that tastes like a salty paste.
The whole lobster claw that graces the center of the bowl should be like culinary gold: a sweet, profoundly tender piece of heaven that everyone else at the table should bitterly covet. We found ours to be saw-with-a-knife tough and so thoroughly adulterated by the salty Velveeta nightmare “bisque” at the bottom of the bowl as to be inedible.
The remarkable thing about the Lobster Mac N Cheez is that even if every element had been executed perfectly — a rich, cheesy bisque, lightly fried tender pasta shells, sweet, yielding lobster pieces, and less grainy, less mysterious lumpy paste in the shells — it still would have been an overly contrived reworking of dish that was just fine before, thank you.
All of the misfires that we encountered, most of all the “memorable-like-the-Hindenburg” Mac N Cheez, raises the question of whether The Freehouse can pull it together. We believe so: Somewhere within the confused, sprawling, shambolic concept of The Freehouse, there is a good (or even great) restaurant yearning to be free. Some of the bones are there: the service, the decor, possibly the jars, the beer, the burgers (if adjusted and executed correctly).
But the place needs merciless editing and — most crucially — someone with a palate who will stop a charred meringue cake, or a dodgy dish of mussels, or any conceivable version of the Lobster Mac N Cheez from leaving the kitchen and doing damage to the restaurant’s reputation.
The Freehouse can retrieve culinary success for one of its food concepts. It just needs to pick which one and start drilling down.
— Cecely Meller contributed to this review
Restaurant and brewpub in the Warehouse District, Minneapolis
701 N Washington Ave, Suite 101
Minneapolis, MN 55401
OWNER: Blue Plate Restuarant Company
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: Call-Ahead List / Yes for Weekends
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Limited / Limited
ENTREE RANGE: $9-24
PARKING: Lot and meters on Washington Ave.