The Publican (Chicago)

The Publican
I first ate at the Publican in Chicago in early 2010. This was just over a year after it opened and it was hot, hot, hot. I enjoyed that dinner very much*. And so even though it is now 2015, and I haven’t really kept up with its reputation, it was my pick for a place to go to when we passed through Chicago this weekend with the kids in tow: their regular menu is very kid-friendly; and there is no way in hell that even very badly behaved children can put a damper on anyone’s evening at the Publican (they’d have to be screaming into a megaphone to be heard) and ours are very well-behaved indeed when an iPad is deployed.

On the whole, it was a nice meal but it didn’t get me as excited as the previous.

Their extensive beer list includes a number of locally brewed selections. I will not recommend the 15 Feet, a smoked wheat ale from Off Color Brewing that I drank; the missus's Steeped Emperor's Lemon Saison from Moody Tongue Brewing Co. was much better (infused with lemon peel, lemongrass, lemon balm and lemon myrtle)

Their extensive beer list includes a number of locally brewed selections. I will not recommend the 15 Feet, a smoked wheat ale from Off Color Brewing that I drank; the missus’s Steeped Emperor’s Lemon Saison from Moody Tongue Brewing Co. was much better (infused with lemon peel, lemongrass, lemon balm and lemon myrtle)

This may well be because of the more debauched nature of the first meal: I was with an old food forum friend (who I’ve sadly since passed out of touch with), her boyfriend and her sister, and no one who has dined with the inimitable NeroW (I’ll preserve her anonymity) has ever had a bad time. And it may also be because the kind of thing the Publican does (not that they originated it) is now far more commonplace. “Whole hog” butchery; hearty pork-centric cooking (and a massive beer list) that takes its cues far more from Germany and the American heartland than from France; house-made charcuterie etc.: all these things, plus their aesthetic (loud, informal, communal) can now be found everywhere, including the Twin Cities; for all I know, even Applebee’s offers house-made charcuterie now. In 2010 I was very impressed by the charcuterie plate; in 2015 I still enjoyed most of it but felt a lot more jaded about the whole thing. (It should be noted though that there is nothing dilettantish about the Publican’s charcuterie: it comes from their own butcher shop across the street.)

As we dined very early I’m not in a position to gauge how popular the Publican remains five years since my previous meal. Then it was packed to the gills late on a Thursday night; now it was almost entirely empty early on a Saturday evening (we sat down just before 6 and left at about 7.30).

As such it was not difficult to get a booth (as many have noted, these feel more like pens, which is a very good thing when you’re wrangling two small children); most of the seats at the restaurant are at long, communal tables and there are also tables for those who prefer to drink and snack standing up. Service is informal but assured and attentive.

The room at 6 pm.

The room at 6 pm.

What did we get? (Pictures in the slideshow below)

  • We started out with a dozen oysters, 2x  of six varieties: Sea Cow (WA), Black Bear Point (ME), Basket Island (ME), Publican (MA), Island Creek (MA), Hama Hama (WA). Of these the Sea Cow was very good indeed and the Hama Hama was quite good. The rest, it pains me to say, were somewhat blah.
  • We also got a half-dozen clams, 2x of three varieties: Savory (WA), Littleneck (MA), Countneck (MA). The clams were uniformly excellent and we wished we’d passed on the (more expensive) oysters and just gotten a lot more of them.
  • Olive Flounder Crudo: Very simply presented with olive oil, lemon, salmon roe and a touch of dill but just lovely. The rare example of crudo that did’t make me wish I were eating sashimi instead. By the way, the Publican is also the kind of restaurant where the provenance of every ingredient is listed on the menu and so I can tell you that the flounder came from Jeju Island in South Korea (this pleased the crypto-nationalist spouse).
  • 1/2 Charcuterie Plate: This comprised a bit of the following: lamb salami, pork pie, head cheese, foie gras and blood pate and morteau sausage (plus various pickles, mustard and a very nice plum mostarda). I thought the lamb salami was excellent but could only get one small bite before the boys wolfed it down. I also liked the thinly sliced head cheese and the pork pie a lot; the pate I thought was just okay and the sausage I thought was dull.
  • Farm Chicken: We got a half-order which came with frites and summer sausage. The frites were dynamite, and the chicken was excellent as well (grilled and then finished in the oven, I was told). The summer sausage was fine.

We skipped dessert with a view towards stopping in at the Eataly by our hotel for some gelato but never got around to that either.

All of this plus two beers, two glasses of milk, tax and tip came to $145, which I have to say feels a bit much for what we ate, even though we liked most of it fine. I guess, without the uninspiring oysters it would have been a bit cheaper (they were $36 for the dozen). I’d still recommend it for those who haven’t eaten there before but I’m unlikely to want to come back on our next trip (which might be as early as next year).

*It is, of course, entirely possible that the company and prodigious quantities and types of alcohol involved that evening have something to do with my memory of the meal. But that’s not fair to the restaurant. I just discovered the notes on that meal that I posted elsewhere soon after and the amount of detail suggests it made a strong impression despite rather than because of the fog of alcohol.

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