The Publican, Chicago

Publican Table 1

 

I’m back in Chicago again, and have, of course, made it a point to try a new restaurant with my favorite foodie friend Megan from No Chef’s Allowed. Leaving the restaurant selection in her capable hands, I met her at the Publican in Fulton Market. Dubbed an ‘homage to beer, pork, and oysters’, it’s menu also features a bountiful variety of local, season vegetables, meats, and fish as well as house made charcuterie.

The warm, rustic, high-ceilinged, heavily wooded interior is  dominated by long wooden banquet-style farmhouse tables. Surrounding a portion of the room’s perimeter are semi-private booths, each with it’s own door. And in the very center  of the room are tall German beer-hall tables. Large storybook-like paintings of heritage pigs hang around the room.

Publican table 2

Although I arrived early since traffic wasn’t as bad as I’d expected, the hostess was happy to seat me. Our reservation was for 6:30 – exceptionally early for my usual dinner hour – so the restaurant was fairly empty. I was seated at the corner of one of the long tables, which would later prove fortuitous when our food arrived.

While I waited for Megan, I studied the menu in depth and ordered the daily pickles and radishes with truffle butter as some very light starter bites. Both were served on flowered mismatched plates that looked exactly like the dishes you’d expect to find in an old farmhouse. Sweetly tangy, the pickles – long skinny wax beans, cauliflower florets, and thinly sliced onions –  had a golden yellow tone, likely from mustard powered in the pickling brine, and were evocative of the later summer afternoon on which we were eating them.

Publican House Pickles

The french breakfast radishes – so apropos for the French-style preparation – were piled atop a mound of creamy butter flecked with black truffle, surrounded by a light drizzle of truffle oil, and dusted with salt. While it seems a most incongruous combination of ingredients, it worked in an odd way, the rich creamy butter enhancing the spicy fresh crunchiness of the radishes.

A panzanella-style heirloom tomato salad followed. Large cubes of sweet, meaty, vibrant red, green, and yellow heirloom tomatoes and thick torn chunks of  house-baked bread were tossed with a tangy balsamic vinaigrette and blanketed in fresh basil and mint. Three thin slices of house-made prosciutto were curled across the top. While somewhat superfluous, the salty delicious meat worked in harmony with the acidic vinegar to balance the richness of the tomatoes.

Publican Heirloom Tomato Salad

Next was a veritable school of incredibly fresh tiny smelt, encrusted with a potato-chip coating and lightly fried. Perfectly salted, these rich, omega 3 – filled little treats were punctuated with tart slices of fried green tomatoes.  I very nearly lost a few taste buds biting into the scalding hot fish. We both grew up in Italian families, so it was a plate of nostalgia, reminding us both of the Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fish dinners.

The potato chip crusted smelt were as hard to stop eating as a plate of potato chips, but we had to force ourselves to stop to save room for the additional plates coming. Our friendly server had advised us that they were share-style plates, but all of them were considerably larger than I’d expected. And we were starting to fill up  when the charcuterie plate arrived. All house made, this platter was filled with some of the best cured meats I’ve ever tasted. Even the head cheese, which I normally don’t care for, was fantastic because it was so thinly sliced that  none of the marginally difficult textures or tastes overtook the flavor. There was also a spicy salami, a piece of pork sausage, a short but thick slice of pork pie, and a thicker salami.  Berry compote and stone ground mustard were served on the side.

Publican Charcuterie plate

By the time we were finished with these courses, we were about ready to throw in the napkin, but there was still more food coming. So, to fortify ourselves, Megan ordered another Mongo, an ipa style beer from  from Port Brewing Company in California, and I poured another glass of FX Barc’s Les Collines Rouges, a pinot noir from Touraine, France

Next a very Spanish-style grilled octopus, charred on the edges and nestled in a clay dish and topped with a mayo-based tartar-style sauce. We also had the braised pork belly that had been seared then slow cooked until much of the fat had melted into the smoky salty meat, making it fall apart tender once you broke through the caramely crust.

We really wanted to try a dessert or two, but were alas, much too full. Next time, for sure. Because we definitely want to go back to the Publican.

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