25 August 2010

The Publican, Chicago - Restaurant Review

Pork, seafood, and beer. What more does a guy need? Just one look at the menu of the Publican and I'm already won over. It's the sort of menu that brings a smile to any dedicated carnivore or piscivore, and features numerous tempting dishes such as ham chops in hay, potted rillettes, pork belly, oysters, and octopus.

The main man behind the Publican is Chef Paul Kahan who is most well known for his critically acclaimed Chicago restaurants, Blackbird and Avec. For his third incarnation, Kahan designed the Publican as a casual Belgian-style beer hall. The cavernous dining room is dominated by a huge u-shaped walnut table that seats around 100 diners in communal fashion. Towards the back is a semi-open kitchen buzzing with activity, and flanking along the wall is a bar lined with around a dozen beer taps. There are also smaller, cosy booths that seat four with waist-high barn door style gates. An array of luminous orbs hangs from the ceiling and huge porcine artwork adorns the walls. It's loud and raucous inside, and you sit cheek by jowl next to other diners, perfect for ogling the dishes others have ordered.

The communal nature of the place also extends to the menu, where dishes are arranged in order of size, with seafood listed on the left side and meat on the right. The idea is to pick two or three smaller plates and one or two larger dishes to share between two. And what a menu it is! Naturally, given the decor, the menu is very pork-heavy and the restaurant takes weekly deliveries of whole pigs from Becker Lane Organic Farm in Iowa, which are then butchered in-house. The problem here is that every dish is the sort of thing you actually want to eat. It's simple, hearty food that is devoid of foams or encapsulations, and choosing what to order can be a real challenge. The beer menu is also amazing, with well over 50 (mostly European) bottled beers, including the fantastic beer from Nøgne Ø in Norway (heia Norge!), and with 12 different beers on tap.

To start us off, Mrs. Nibbler and I ordered a plate of fresh radishes and some spicy pork rinds. The radishes hailed from Kinnikinnick Farm in Caledonia, Illinois. They were cool, crisp, and spicy and we ate them leaves and all (a trick we learnt at Noma) with a smear of plain butter and a sprinkling of sea salt.
Kinnikinnick Farm Radishes with Butter & Sea Salt
The spicy pork rinds arrived wrapped in brown paper in a pint glass. They were made from pigs reared on Slagel Farm in Fairbury, Illinois and had been dusted with an acidic and fiery espelette pepper powder. They were like no other pork rind I had ever tasted. Simply stunning. They were as light as popcorn, ethereal even, and just melted on your tongue. Between Mrs. Nibbler and me they stood no chance and were gone almost instantly.
Spicy Pork Rinds
Next, we shared a dish of pork cheeks that were served with shiso plums and aubergines. The pork cheeks were well-seasoned and full of flavour, and they were cooked to a melting softness rendering the knife redundant. The shisho plums provided just the right amount of acidity and sweetness to cut through the fatty porkiness, and the aubergines had a wonderful, mild smoky taste. I loved this dish dearly and was genuinely sad when it was gone.
Pork Cheeks, Shiso Plums & Marinated Aubergine
For our main course we shared some Provençal fish stew. A large pot of the steaming stew arrived with a ladle buried deep inside and Mrs. Nibbler and I took turns to serve each other. It was such a nice touch. The stew had been made with salt cod, prawns, clams, octopus, crab and potatoes and was served with some toasted bread and a garlicky aioli. It was divine, although a touch salty, but this can happen if the salt cod is not soaked for long enough. Unusually for a Provençal fish soup, this dish did not include saffron or tomatoes, which I was hoping it would as I love those flavours in a fish soup.
Provençal Fish Stew
Desserts are a very simple affair at the Publican, with just three options to choose from. We decided to try a simple white peach sorbet that was served with basil and blueberries. It was a perfect, light and refreshing end to a marvellous supper, although perhaps a touch too sweet for my taste (I like my sorbets to be on the acidic, rather than sweet side).

White Peach Sorbet with Basil and Blueberries
I left Publican that night sated and happy as a pig in the proverbial. The Publican is a truly wonderful place. It serves the sort of hearty and homely food that just makes you glad to be alive. So there it is, if you're lucky enough to live in Chi-town then just go there. Let me leave you with the delicious little homage that appears on the restaurant's card:

"Here’s to the Swine
That Animal Divine
who through Mud and Slime
Grit and Grime
Gorges over Time
Into Meats Sublime"

- the Publican

(UPDATE 10.11.2010: In Michelin's inaugural guide to Chicago, The Publican was awarded a Bib Gourmand, which signifies a restaurant offering "good food at moderate prices.")

Food:         8 / 10
Service:      7 / 10
Ambiance:  8 / 10
837 W. Fulton Market
Chicago, IL 60607
Tel: +1 312-733-9555

Publican on Urbanspoon

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