Thursday, April 28, 2011


I’ve been asked many times if I’ve ever been to The Publican since it’s one of the more popular and well received restaurants in the city created by none other than Paul Kahan. Until this week my answer had been a surprising no. Every time I almost made it there I’d take a quick peek at the menu and wonder what the heck would I eat? I’m by no means a vegetarian/pescatarian or shy from trying new foods. But I also don’t run to eat lots of red meat or heavy pork products or other “natural” preparations. While I admire The Publican’s use of local farms and whole animal products, the menu is actually limited in scale (i.e. mostly Pork and raw seafood choices). If you’re not interested in blood sausages, various charcuterie, sweet breads and pork bellies then I’d say your experience might be limited to oysters, other raw seafood and some vegetables. I’m up for anything and was happy to check it out, especially the space (James Beard Award Winning Design) and highly regarded beer list.

I’ll join everyone else when I say the atmosphere and décor are top notch and not done justice through pictures. It’s a lively “beer hall” style experience with communal tables and a standing bar area. The room has a nice rumble of noise emanating from happy eaters and drinkers. It’s a place that encompasses happy people all sharing a similar experience drinking and eating good food. The beer list is quite interesting and full of choices you might not find in many places in Chicago. Don’t expect to find $3 bud lights or PBRs and most beers are large format with large format type prices.

We ordered a lot of food not because we were particularly hungry but because we wanted to sample what was on the menu that evening. For starters we had an order of pork rinds, French fries with an egg on top and steak tartare. I could stop right there and explain how eating those dishes would be more fat and cholesterol that I would want to consume in an entire week. But as they say, “when in Rome”…I’ve never been a pork rind fan and that didn’t change much after some of ones I had. If you get a good one that is light and airy, I can see the appeal. I also had one that was super tough and a potential tooth breaker. Oh well, maybe it’s a sign. Not surprising the fries with egg was awesome. What could be better than fried potatoes with eggs? Sounds like breakfast to me. We both were disappointed in the steak tartare – it tasted a bit more chewy and rare than the better ones I’ve had. It also lacked some basic flavor and seasonings. You shouldn’t be reminded that you’re eating raw meat.

The two fish dishes we tried were the squid and sablefish. I didn’t mind nor didn’t love the squid dish. It was served with a nice brown rice and some greens with avocado. The raw squid is exactly what it sounds like, raw little octopus guys. Not a whole lot going on without a lot of flavor either, but that’s the appeal of raw seafood right? The smoked sablefish was an interesting fish I don’t think I’ve had before. It was served on rye bread with fromage blanc, beets & endive. The dish was well presented and cooked, though I imagine sablefish is a strong flavor that you either like or don’t like. I’m in between but probably leaning on don’t like since I doubt I’d run back to order that dish again.

We went with two meat dishes, blood sausage and spare ribs. I actually liked the blood sausage even though I definitely don’t want to know how that’s made. There were a lot of good and interesting flavors with a texture I could handle. The spare ribs were not my favorite and more challenging to eat than I expected. As Brendan noted, they gave you the whole darn rump, with all the fat and cartilage intact. Even if the meat was tasty it was very hard to get at without a lot of work or consuming “the extras.” We also ordered a side of ramps, a.k.a. wild leeks, something I had never tried before. I enjoyed them and the basic presentation but flavorful sauce and cooking flavors. I guess it’s a unique taste a la collard greens or similar root vegetables. Maybe I was just craving something green after all the pork and meat.

I had a few great beers but could not tell you which ones because I just asked our server to bring me something good. When it was all said and done the check arrived and I was definitely surprised. Yes, we ordered a lot of food and didn’t eat all of it but looking at a $160 bill for two is still a little startling. And apparently that’s not uncommon from what I could gather. So what’s my takeaway? It’s a great place to hang out and drink with a very tailored menu. If you’re not a huge pork or oyster/raw bar person I don’t know if it’s a good fit. I can see the talent of the kitchen in their product even if it’s not something I’d order every day or ever again. Everyone raves about two things I have yet to try: the pork belly and the Sunday brunch (one of the best in town?). While it may not become a favorite go-to for me, I’d suggest everyone to check it out in case the food matches the impressive décor, service and drinks (but bring your larger wallet).

Publican on Urbanspoon 

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