As soon as guests enter the General Public, they're greeted by tintypes, taxidermy and one of those creepy cymbal-playing chimps made by Daishin C.K. in the 1950s. My first thought was of my childhood visits to Bennigan's, updated for today. And the new restaurant, which already has a location in San Antonio, does share some DNA with the chain. There are the tchotchkes (though servers, mercifully, wear no flair), but also an emphasis on bar-focused fun. There's a menu section labeled "Day Drinking" devoted to tipples that are $4 before 5 p.m. Every day at sundown, the entire restaurant is treated to a shot-sized house cocktail for a restaurant-wide toast.
But one taste of the food (or even a look at the menu) makes it clear that the similarities end there. So does the name of the restaurant group behind the General Public, FreeRange Concepts. Houston native Kyle Noonan, the company's cofounder with Josh Sepkowitz, emphasizes local and regional ingredients on a menu that is both approachable and surprising. These are, after all, the minds behind Bowl & Barrel, the gourmet bowling alley next door.
The first starter I tried, burrata and pistachio toast, could have been my last and I'd have been perfectly happy. Crushed pistachios and Parmigiano-Reggiano are baked onto slices of Slow Dough bread, by turns cheesy, oily and nutty. It strongly reminded me of the famous Rosa pie at Phoenix's much-ballyhooed Pizzeria Bianco. But the General Public chef Daniel Menchaca trumps "the best pizzeria in America" with the addition of gooey burrata, ready to spread to-taste over the warm toast.
In 20 years, the words "Sriracha" and "shishito" will be as inextricably attached to the current moment in food as pesto and goat cheese are to 1996. When I was served a dish called Shishitos and Shrooms, a pile of beer-battered peppers and cremini mushrooms, served with Sriracha dipping sauce, I rolled my eyes a little. But the spot-on seasoning made the crunchy nuggets hard to put down. OK, maybe those ingredients are so popular for a reason.
I was also surprised when my server told me my next course would be a chicken salad. It sounded like the opposite of a showcase item, the kind of thing that's on the menu for your mother who's on a diet. Once again, the General Public upended my expectations. What arrived at the table was a blend of green cabbage, kale, green apple and jicama dressed in an aromatic curry vinaigrette. An apricot-heavy fruit chutney lent an additional reminder of India, while roasted peanuts flavored with ghost pepper brought a nutty hint of heat.
When I read the description of the crispy quail and hot cakes as including "scallion pancakes," I assumed that meant crispy Chinese scallion pancakes. Nope. The reality was closer to the dish's name—these were indeed American-style hot cakes, but with scallions in and on top of them. They were bathed in piloncillo syrup made smoky with chipotle. The sugar syrup worked just as well with the quail from Diamond H Ranch in Bandera, tender and juicy in a fried coating of chickpea flour. It was cleverly paired with a Mezcal Mule, a take on the Moscow Mule that's fruity with blackberries and, thanks to the mezcal, a smoky match for the chipotle.
As at Bowl & Barrel, where the only sweet option is cotton candy, there is but one dessert at the General Public. But is there really need for more when the sole option is birthday cake, complete with candle? I paired my sprinkle-laden, buttercream-layered slice with a Rusky Rose, a pleasingly pink cocktail that combines vodka, lemon juice and not-too-sweet house grenadine. And the cocktail is on the "Day Drinking" menu, making it a $4 very merry unbirthday present to all.