Fueling the Fire at Público

The hearth-fueled kitchen at Publico.
The kitchen is centered around the hearth at Público.

Patagonian pitmaster Francis Mallmann would probably approve of Público, Mike and Liz Randolph’s ode to Latin American cuisine. Instead of cooking outdoors over a blazing fire, Mike brought the smoke and heat inside. You won’t find an oven, a fryolator or a even a range in the kitchen. Delectable meats and veggies are cooked over the wood-fired hearth that serves as grill, spit and smoker. As if cooking for a restaurant full of hungry diners over a grill with adjustable controls isn’t hard enough. Mike and his crew use nothing more than an induction cooker (that’s fancy talk for “hot plate”) and the mercurial fires of the hearth to serve some of  St. Louis’s most creative food.

The hearth was a feat. No other commercial kitchen in St. Louis county is like this one, so we weren’t sure if the local regulatory bodies would even allow such an easily-accessible, constantly-burning open fire. Fortunately, the county signed off on it without a second thought. A local masonry company built the firebox and brick enclosure of the pine-green “South City” brick Mike requested, and a large hood and fire-suppression system (the same kind that would be over any commercial grill) was installed above the brick. Based on pictures Mike gave us, our team designed and built the steel shelving, smoker box and fire trough insert that sits inside the firebrick.

Since the hearth is the heart of Público, the design for the rest of the space was inspired by the fire’s fuel: wood. While subtlely referencing the blackened, charred wood in the firebox, the colors of the space were kept monochromatic to keep the attention on the hearth and food that comes from it. (The hearth’s location in the space, incidentally, was dictated by limited venting options in the building.) The expansive bar is the focal point of the dining room, but the backbar is low to allow guests throughout the space to see the fire. The chunky, ebonized-wood bartop evokes the look of charred wood and ash, and it sits atop a dimly backlit die wall, clad in a laser-cut geometric pattern. The entire bar is covered by a graceful canopy of black steel that floats above the bar. Next to the bar, ebonized wood was fashioned into stylized trees that overlook diners. The same wood also caps the top of the booths to give them a finished look.

The guys in the shop fabricated a community table from a live-edge slab of cherry wood and custom, laser-cut legs. The slab had a large crack down the center of it, so we cut the center portion from the slab and used this narrow piece as a drink rail along the wall of the front dining room. (Clever, eh?) The Randolphs selected the whimsical art on the walls, and Público’s multi-talented manager drew the agave plant and the pig map on the chalkboards that flank the bar. We even made a simple stand to hold Mike’s record player and a selection of records.

When you go, fast for a few days so you can sample everything on the menu. (You’ll request multiple orders of a few dishes, like the al pastor tacos. TRUST.) As the Riverfront Times, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and St. Louis Magazine can attest, you will not be disappointed. Try to score the chef’s counter seating so you can see your food prepared over the open flames.

Publico
6679 Delmar
St. Louis, MO  63130
314.833.5780
www.publicostl.com

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