We went out a couple of weeks ago to Public House 124, a new eatery and watering hole on Walla Walla’s Main Street, and no location gets any more “heart of downtown” than this. Inside, brick walls run from the front windows to the kitchen area, where a counter lets patrons watch the culinary work in action just like over at Whitehouse Crawford. This isn’t surprising, I suppose, given that PH124’s chef used to work there; he’s doubled down with a former bartender at the Marcus Whitman Hotel, and yes, the drinks are pretty tasty. There’s no word yet on if the Cocoa Cowgirl, a pint-glass of liquor with a little bit of cream, made it over to this new establishment, but I’ll ask the next time I go.
Which will be when the weather has cooled off, because PH124 doesn’t have air conditioning.
Four of us sat down for dinner, having heard that it was a place really into the details of food. If that was the case, the menu was something of a mystery. Eight small plate offerings, but only three sandwiches and three entrees? Perhaps they were still tinkering with the culinary repertoire. After all, I wasn’t expecting a New Jersey-style diner menu with 200–300 items crammed in like so many steel head salmon during spawning. But I thought it would be less bare bones than this.
We selected a cheese plate and a reinvented Peking duck crepe as appetizers. Three at the table ordered the house burger, and I opted instead for a pulled pork sandwich. We quickly went through the bottle of ice-cold water presented to us by our server, and then looked around for a refill. Maybe outside was cooler, maybe not, but with the flames and heated surfaces pouring warm air into the room, water seemed like our only defense against abrupt dehydration. And instead of focusing on an interesting meal, we involuntarily conjured images of sand dunes and empty canteens.
The cheese plate was standard fare for the new Walla Walla; a wedge of a triple cream brie, looking almost melted on the plate, a few thin slices of a manchego cheese, a little nutty on first bite, some in-season raspberries, thin cracker bread that was the same as one can buy from the salumiere on 2nd Avenue, and a scattering of marcona nuts. The faux duck was less successful, mostly because it was served in two large pieces, rolled in the crepe, instead of a presentation that would work for more than two people. It was chicken with aspirations, and was well cooked, if not a little flat on the palate.
On our third requested refill of water—I was beginning to think they were worrying about their water bill, so much for saving money with no AC costs—they brought out our dinner and forgot to make one hamburger for us. Cordially enough, the house paid for this last burger and brought it out about 10 minutes later. Susanne remarked that her burger was terrific, if not really, really messy to eat. Think bib with a big lobster dinner messy. With a slab of avocado and two thick strips of bacon piled on a more than inch thick beef patty, it was a lot to handle. And though our server didn’t ask how our table’s patrons wanted their burgers cooked, nobody had any complaints about doneness.
My pulled pork sandwich, again, was fine, but far from exceptional. Somehow the slaw was more vibrant and interesting than the meat, which I presume had been slow cooked and marinated for several hours. The pork seemed to cringe away from the very idea of flavor, and it was stunning in its singular refusal to taste like much of anything. My truffle fries that accompanied the sandwich were a little too soft, as if they’d finished frying too long before, and while I enjoy truffle oil on my fried potatoes, I’m not sure I would have paired French luxury with Tennessee practicality. Some malt vinegar probably would have been a better choice if the chef insisted on misting the french fries.
The sodium levels in the food and the sauna conditions left us practically begging for another bottle of water, and our server looked at us like we were all sweating it out from a day of dropping ecstasy, even though two of us at the table were very very pregnant. Part of the problem here was that we had pint glasses for our water and 950ml old limonade bottles for our water service. We could fill all of our glasses about 2/3 of the way before kicking the bottle. Perhaps pitchers would work better? It is a public house, after all.
This establishment needs to find its feet. From the word around town, the owners were pressured to open after announcing their plans for a restaurant late last winter. This feels like something of a soft opening, when the ground rules for operating are getting established and the menu is still in flux. I’ll try them again in a couple of months and see if the promise is nearer to fulfillment.
At least it will be cooler.