Once derided for their culinary ineptitude, the British have invaded us all over again with a new Fab Four: nose, tail, trotter, and jowl (and everything in between).
Indeed, the pig has become a modern-day proxy for a larger umbrella of thematic eating, under which fall beer and tattooes, mustaches and suspenders, piles of meat too large for four, mismatched plates, and distressed wood. Pig has become the mascot for the glutton au courant and gastropub, a totem for the rallying army of fad-chasing “foodies.”
And maybe – just maybe – it has become a crutch for chefs too.
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The Publican could be the poster child for everything that’s wonderful and overdone about pig these days.
The ingredient quality is high and the food is predictably well-cooked, preferring to be overseasoned rather than bland.
The portion sizes are generous, sometimes ridiculously so, an encouragement to share with friends and strangers in communal dining.
And there are enough adventures on the menu to make you goggle-eyed with with greed. Only the slightly over-inflated prices prevent you from losing all sense of reason.
It is a restaurant made for our times. If you don’t believe me, witness the mad scene on a weekend night as I did.
On my recent trip to Chicago in October, my friend Wunderkind flew in from Dallas just in time to meet me for dinner there. A trusted veteran at my table and a semi-regular at The Publican, he ably steered our dinner. We covered the menu, wide and deep. And, of course, we over-ordered.
CLICK HERE to see all the photos from this meal.
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Apple Salad (Nichols Farm, Marengo, Illinois)
Celery root, radish, cashews & ricotta salata. ($8)
Pork pie, duck & foie gras galantine, head cheese,
coppa, morteau sausage, pickles & mustards. ($21)
Carrots (Green Acres Farm, North Judson, Indiana)
Goat’s milk yogurt, arugula & garlic chips. ($8)
Marrow Bones (Slagel Family Farm, Fairbury, Illinois)
Trinadad pepper jelly & sourdough. ($16)
Little Neck Clams (Chincoteague Island, Virginia)
Pork cheeks, potatoes, tomatoes & vermouth. ($15)
Boudin Noir (Slagel Family Farm, Fairbury, Illinois)
Napa cabbage, apples & watercress. ($15)
Brussels Sprouts (Green Acres Farm, North Judson, Indiana)
Chermoula & almonds. ($8)
Country Ribs (Slagel Family Farm, Fairbury, Illinois)
Tatsoi & grilled red onions. ($23)
Berkshire Blue (raw cow; Berkshire Cheese Makers)
Lenox, Massachusetts ($8)
Ewe’s Bloom (sheep; Prairie Fruit Farms)
Champaign, Illinois. ($8)
Honey butter & strawberry jam. ($7)
Chocolate ice cream and chocolate sauce. ($7)
Sticky Toffee Pudding
Goat’s milk ice cream. ($7)
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My criticisms of The Publican are niggling, and admittedly a bit cynical.
It’s not The Publican’s fault that it is but one in a long line of gastropubs that have opened in the city in the past few years. Chicago is over-saturated with pig at the moment, if you ask me.*
The Publican’s interior is absurd and awesome at once. It’s high farm camp.
The dining room features a corral of long, communal dining tables surrounding a pool of high-tops where the waiting public stands with its drinks. Around the whole, a series of pig stall booths run along one wall, counter seating lines the opposite side, and a third side is capped with a sea of floating deuces.
Massive canvas paintings of morbidly obese pigs anchor the spartan walls in sections. Overhead you’ll notice the result of what surely had to be a sale on globe lighting fixtures. In the bathroom, you’ll find a communal wash trough straight from the farm, just shy of a water pump.
Forget about twenty years hence, I’m wondering now: what were they thinking? Give it a few years and The Publican just might be the shag carpeting of Chicago restaurants – outdated and kitschy.
Aesthetics aside, the food here was good, but sometimes a little odd.
The ironic part of this meal is that my favorite dishes were the two vegetables we ordered. Carrots of all different sizes and colors came roasted and tender, drizzled with a tangy goat’s milk yogurt and flocked with crunchy garlic chips. Even better were the Brussels Sprouts, which were tossed with spicy chermoula oil and chopped almonds. These were great.
The Charcuterie Plate was impressive. The gingham platter came piled high with all sorts of pink products, all of which were unimpeachably produced. (And there were pickled asparagus!) But why were they served stone cold? That was a killjoy for the pork pie in particular, which was otherwise perfect – cold aspic and cold pastry are such downers, not to mention the meat filling, which was stiff.
Our cheeses, too, seemed like they had come straight from the icebox.
Napa cabbage is one vegetable whose use I’d like to see limited to Asian preparations. It’s simply too delicate, too watery to put with Boudin Noir, for example: fusion fail. The apple and onion slaw – crunchy and sweet, tossed with a tart dressing – was a much more sensible accompaniment. Even so, the boudin was a tad bland and a bit rough for my taste. I like boudin a bit finer, a bit softer.
Why were our Marrow Bones served with sugared toast? Did they grab the wrong shaker? Or was this creativity gone slightly awry? Were the shockingly acidic peppers supposed to balance things out? If so, it didn’t work. The confectionary confusion aside, the marrow bones were outstanding – perhaps the most fat-filled tubes I’ve ever seen.
Little Neck Clams mounded on an enormous hunk of braised pork cheek made me ask “why” and “why not?” at the same time. The broth was rich with flavor, punchy with vermouth, which I adore. But the clams – still on the shell – and the pork cheek seemed like two different creatures doing two different things, forced company in a bowl. But the clams were perfect, and the pork cheek even more so, unzipping at the seams with little helped.
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The dessert menu is short.
If there’s one thing that a gastropub should nail, it’s sticky toffee pudding. Yet, the Sticky Toffee Pudding here is more like carrot cake without the carrot, or, more accurately, a nut cake. The crumb was loose and moist – it was a actually a pretty great cake. But no amount of toffee sauce could have turned it into sticky toffee pudding.
Chocolate Donuts came with chocolate ice cream and chocolate sauce. If it weren’t for the fact that the chocolate ice cream was so hypnotically great, I’d dismiss the whole as just another obligatory chocolate dessert. That ice cream was fantastic. The donuts were alright, if not a bit greasy tasting.
The Waffle, however, made up for all the other disappointments. Light as air, this yeasty (I’m guessing beer) grid came topped with whipped butter and strawberry jam. I want the recipe.
The one part of our meal that was completely faultless was our service. Dishes came in good pace, one at a time, and with good humor. It helped that Wunderkind knew our server.
While I thought I might be able to hang a Michelin star on this review, if my meal at The Publican was representative of its normal behavior, then I can’t say that I’m surprised that the restaurant was benched with the Bib Gourmandes. The guide rouge’s inspectors satisfied their gastropub quota (a.k.a. The Spotted Pig effect) by awarding a star to Longman & Eagle in their Chicago debut guide instead.
Do I recommend The Publican? Yes, but with reservation. Here’s to hoping your charcuterie thaws. Order the vegetables. And, whatever you do, don’t leave without having a waffle.
837 West Fulton Market
Chicago, Illinois 60607
* Going for the same feel and look are Longman & Eagle, The Bristol, The Gage, Mado, The Girl and the Goat, and The Purple Pig, among others.