A sad but true story: My friend Lara and I lost touch when we went away to college. We had spent high school sitting a few seats away from each other in more subjects than I’m capable of remembering (I think we were in at least one Global Studies, almost all of our Spanish courses, perhaps every English class…) but I did such a terrible job at maintaining a long-distance friendship that our level of camaraderie dwindled because of it.
Here’s the happy ending though: an e-correspondence has popped up between us. Since Lara’s finishing up with her Ph.D at the University of Chicago, the moment I knew I was going to be in town I immediately sent her a message detailing our plans. We decided to meet up for a tour at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Robie House on the university’s campus in Hyde Park and then spend some time catching up before getting to our reservations at The Publican.
The Publican is the newest eatery from the team behind Avec and Blackbird, but unlike its predecessors, the focus at this restaurant is on beer. Had I been drinking that night, I would have started with the Cane + Ebel red rye from Illinois’s own Two Brothers Brewing Company, before moving on to Goose Island‘s Pere Jacques, a Belgian-style ale. After all, when in Chicago, right? Massachusetts law makes it tricky for breweries and vineyards to ship product in; the selection at liquor stores can be very limited, so when we travel Keith and I try to take advantage of locally-made drinks.
When we walked in the restaurant’s doors, the first thing I noticed was the noise. The dining room is big and cavernous; sound bounces around the space like a superball. The second thing I that caught my eye was the space itself. For one thing, the ceiling is ridiculously high, and from it hangs countless globe-shaped light fixtures. For another, like at Avec, a majority of the tables are set up family-style; the rest are shuttered away behind mini barn-like doors. (You can see them in this picture here, which is from the Publican’s site.) I was happy to learn that our table was one of the sealed-off; not only did we get a little bit of privacy — the wooden walls are came up past my shoulders, when I was seated — but the three of us were able to have a conversation without shouting at each other, which is always nice.
The Publican is similar to Avec in one more way: the menu encourages sharing. Our server informed us that three small plates and two larger ones would be more than enough for our little group, so we had a caucus and decided on our choices. Since we said we were okay with our selections arriving as soon as they were ready, our dinner started with frites ($5.00).
If it were up to me, all meals would begin with frites, so I was thrilled to see them blooming out of a paper cone like a golden bouquet. I wasn’t disappointed by the fries — they were so warm they all but melted, and the garlicky mayonnaise we requested went fantastically with the crispy-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside frites. Lucky for Lara and Keith, a member of staff placed the cone on the opposite end of our gated table from where I was seated. Otherwise, it would have been very likely that I wouldn’t have shared a single stick.
The second plate we received over our barn door was pork belly atop a pool of black-eyed peas and pickled shallots ($16.00). Lara had never had pork belly before; once we learned this, Keith and I both insisted upon ordering it (though, to be fair, chances are I probably would’ve demanded the belly regardless). As I watched Lara have her first bite of belly, I realized how badly I wanted her to love it as much as I do. In my mind, belly of pork is as close as you can get to heaven — while eating, anyway. I love its tender texture, and the finger of fat that covers the meat is my absolute favorite part of each bite. My mouth is watering now, many meals later.
Another plate that we three agrees on was the boudin blanc ($15.00), much to my absolute delight. I love hot dogs and think of sausages as their chicer, equally lovable older sisters, so the thought of passing the boudin up was a devastating one.
Boudin blanc is white since the sausage is made without blood; this one was served atop a small pile of apple and celeriac. Orange-infused mustard had been drizzled over it all, resulting in something fantastic. Each bite was a bit tangy and a somewhat nutty and, as with the frites, I did not want to share at all. I did, albeit reluctantly. I still regret it.
I’m just now starting to realize how pigcentric our meal was, especially now that the time has come to discuss the next dish: pork ribs with polenta and a helping of caraway-mint slaw ($20.00). The ribs were sweet and lovely, and the polenta crisp, but what really got my attention was the minted slaw. I had never known that I liked slaw until I had the Publican’s version; it had the perfect amount of mint essence. Sometimes — well, more like oftentimes — I find mint to be one of the most overpowering of aromatic herbs, beating down into submission whatever other flavors might be present. That was definitely not the case here.
The ribs, briefly, were sweet and meaty, and devoured almost instantaneously.
The three of us wanted to make sure we ordered some sort of vegetable-focused dish, particularly since we knew we had one more porky plate coming our way. Once I saw the sunchoke sformato ($6.00) with pancetta and dill vinaigrette on the menu, I knew which vegetable I would be voting for. I had tried sunchokes for the first time last spring in Maine and had loved their crunchy sweetness; I wanted to taste that flavor again. Not only wasn’t I disappointed with the sunchokes, but a small piece of me totally fell in love with the sformato. Creamy and milky, it added a lush sort of luxury to the earthy vegetables.
Our last plate, a potée, was another meatastic dish, though it didn’t revolve completely around the axis of pork, as it featured a veal cut. The Publican’s potée was made out of a minced-meat crépinette, a sizable piece of pork tenderloin and a veal breast ($25.00); the three cuts had been simmered with vegetables, and was similar in feeling to a pot-au-feu. I think of both dishes as comforting, cold-weather food, the sort that is meant to heat you from the inside out — which ultimately, for me, made the potée perfect Chicago food. No frosty breeze would be able to blow me over, not with this warming my belly. In fact, when we left the Publican, the temperature had dropped even further, something that made a perverse sort of sense as we were amongst the last of the patrons to gather our coats and slip reluctantly out into the cold. The truth of the matter is this: I had forgotten about the chilly air outside, and the iced-over puddles lacing the street. All that was on my mind that night was the food, the company and the conversation, and how the combination of it all filled me with a toasty glow that stood up to an arctic Chicago evening.
845 West Fulton Market
Chicago, Illinois 60607