review: zeitgeist…

The Publican

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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Littleneck Clams

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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)

Charcuterie Plate
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)

Waffle
Honey butter & strawberry jam. ($7)

Chocolate Donuts
Chocolate ice cream and chocolate sauce. ($7)

Sticky Toffee Pudding
Goat’s milk ice cream. ($7)

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Carrots

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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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Boudin Noir

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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.

The Publican
837 West Fulton Market
Chicago, Illinois 60607
312-733-9555

* 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.

~ by ulterior epicure on December 7, 2010.

7 Responses to “review: zeitgeist…”

  1. We had the exact same experience at The Publican at the end of October. And the carrots were our favorite dish also. We tried Longman & Eagle- it was fine- a limb and overdressed salad put a damper on the experience but the pork was outstanding!

  2. Great review – pretty spot on. Though the bib gourmand list is difficult. For being the same kind of joint, I think the Publican is noticeably better than the Purple Pig…

    Napa cabbage is not supposed to be watery and delicate. I think many western kitchens don’t have enough “fire power” on their stoves to cook the vegetable properly. I can’t cook it right at home either, even with the proper recipe that worked back in Taiwan.

  3. It’s hard for me to imagine a visit to the Publican without oysters…we regularly stop by on the way to events at the United Center for a dozen and some charcuterie, or perhaps the pork rinds & frites. I think they are pretty easily the best raw seafood available in Chicago.

    Recent news that Kahan would be opening a shop across the street from which to sell his various charcuterie by the pound was met with great cheer around these parts, the Publican’s head cheese is some of the best I’ve had.

  4. My general feeling is that the Publican hasn’t changed much since its inception 2 years ago. Back then, I judged it much more favourably – this was before L&E, Girl&Goat, and The Purple Pig existed. IIRC, Mado and the Bristol had just opened their doors that year. The Publican was actually near the forefront of Chicago’s farm-to-table gastropub scene then. These days though, I (like many others, I’m sure) am suffering from gastropub-palate fatigue… love your reviews btw!

  5. @Rich: Without having eaten at its many peer restaurants, I could tell that The Publican was probably the top of its category in the city, which is why I had hedged it would get the Michelin star for its ilk.

    re: Napa cabbage. In my experience, napa cabbage is rarely stir-fried for the reason you identified (i.e. not enough “fire power”). While it is true that napa cabbage can be crisped and caramelized, with an oily sheen, after a quick sear in a wok, it is much more commonly wet and delicate when cooked. Here, I’m not clear if the napa cabbage was cooked, or if it was simply marinated/pickled. Either way, it just didn’t make sense to me.

  6. @FrenchPressMemo: A friend had urged me to go to Longman & Eagle. I didn’t have time. Perhaps, I’ll check it out on my next trip to the city.

    @KD: I think that the per-pound butcher counter is a smart idea. I’ll be anxious to hear out how it goes.

    @Yao: Thanks!

  7. I was confusing napa cabbage with cabbage, hence the earlier comment (I purchase these in Chinese places; so I got their English names mixed up. Sorry). In which case I agree with you completely, lol, that unless pickled (like kimchi), napa cabbage usually fares well only as an ingredient in soups.

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