Publican – Chicago, IL

The Publican Restaurant
845 W Fulton Market
Chicago, IL
(312) 733-9555

American’s “Second City” (or more precisely O’Hare Airport) has always been just a transit hub for me over the years and a place I’ve never gotten a solid chance to freely explore.  Even on my most recent stop, my venture out to the downtown core was limited to but a single evening.  And amid a heavy wind storm and pouring rain my mood was pretty low, that was until I got to The Publican.  Reservations recommended, otherwise you might have to wait a while at one of the standing tall tables with a drink before one becomes available.

Stepping inside from the torrential downpour was like entering a warm, inviting oasis complete with a happy, buzzing crowd that felt almost like its own little private party.  The carefully designed layout of this beer-centric restaurant felt part Canadian farmhouse (with the rustic livestock holding pen-lookalikes near one wall that served as private booths, and part German beer hall with its really rigid lines, long communal tables, high ceilings, open concept and use of wood materials throughout.

Huge paintings featuring various kinds of fat pigs and hogs adorned the wall and served as the main artistic decorations that tied in nicely with the incredible menu (which changes daily!), which ran alongside an impressive beef list.  Our long journey on the train into the core of the city in this weather was rewarded by a gastronomical feast of items from various parts of the menu sheet.  To begin, a few pints with the able selection advice provided by our low key server – its noted the staff here all undergo a level of “beer server certification” and are well versed in providing insights into finding something to your taste.  Hitting up the draught choices first,  including the likes of a Californian I.P.A, stouts, and brown ales, our table was quite pleased with sampling beer we don’t often get a chance to easily explore on tap.

Though known as a major player in promoting and offering pork-heavy dishes, the seafood preparations were not left abandoned, and we began our evening meal with a platter of fresh oysters off their daily list.  On this occasion, we saw written down some representatives from our beloved British Columbia (with the Effingham, Kusshi, and Stellar Bay), but since we were in the US, we chose to go to the other coast in the Massachusetts selected Island Creek (Duxbury, MA) and the Moon Shoal (from Barnstable, MA) and we even threw in a few Marin Miyagi’s from California for good measure.  All distinct in their appearance, size and of course delicacy in flavor, they were all winners and a great start to our meal.

Not to be forgotten from the simply laid out, one-sheet menu were the vegetable dishes.  As with the meat and seafood sections, they were listed in order from smaller/lighter to larger/heavier, as if to suggest you want to progress from top to bottom and delight in them all.  And believe me, we certainly tried our best!  Definitely a place that you will enjoy more in a shared plates type of go around, and with a big, hungry party – of which there seemed to be many around us.

The pork obviously got our attention, with a note that its all sourced from an Iowa supplier that is certified organic.  From basic to slightly more involved preparations but nothing that was overly fancy or pretentious in terms of plating, the choices here are all well thought out and easy to picture from the menu listings.  If you have any doubts, the servers are on hand to give their thoughts too, just like with the drink menu.  And in a knowledgeable way, not that useless “oh, that’s my favorite” kind of statement you get from those perky, cute waitresses at the chain restaurants around your town.

The insanely good spicy pork rinds dusted in a hot, cheesy powder was exploding in flavor and went so beautifully with our cold pints of beer.   It was nothing like those weak, artificial puffs you get in a bag from your local convenience store, these were done right!   This volley was soon followed by more porky goodness in the aged serrano ham (half order), the charcuterie plate (heritage turkey galantine, pork pie, head cheese, venison salami, morteau sausage, pickles & mustards) that were a medley of textures and varying degrees of savory, tart flavors that were a joy to sample a little bit of each as the plate landed on our table.  It was truly an exercise in pacing oneself, as we knew there was more to come.  But at the same time wanting to get as much onto the taste buds as each dish was superb.

Other highlights for me were these brussels sprouts dressed up with cheesy ricotta and parmesan, red onions & splashes of lemon.  As well as the wonderfully creamy lamb and chickpea curry (made up with some yogurt and pickled raisins!).  As we progressed through the food and drinks, there was one final dish that was just begging us to challenge, as we saw it being brought out from the back of the kitchen to other tables.  Our eyes darting left and right as we wondered what that was and the answer had to be the “hop in the hay” – a plate of pork ribs and pork belly slices that was accompanied by some earthy hen of the woods mushrooms, sunchokes and salmoriglio  (a very Italian inspired condiment) that helped cut through the heaviness of the meat.

Looking back, I am still amazed we put this all down.  I think we stumbled back out into the rain and into our waiting taxi cab with huge smiles on our faces.  This had to be one of the most enjoyable meals I’ve had in a very long time, the fact that we took our sweet time in taking it all in as well, and coupled with the busy atmosphere, attentive but not totally obtrusive service, and our table near the kitchen where we could see the busy action in the back, all made for a full on dining experience that hit on all levels of excitement and satisfaction.  And lastly, I think one more item on the menu laid out what a thoughtful place the Publican is and must be for the working crew.  As one of the waiters rang a bell that was right behind our table and on the wall of the bar, we wondered what that was all about.  And at that moment, a single lady sitting nearby explained to us – she was obviously a regular.

“Oh that?  Its the six pack for the kitchen,” she said.  “For ten bucks you can buy beer for the line cooks”.  On this particular ring, the waiter rushed to the cooler and came out with a six pack of bottled beer (apparently its usually cans).  I think something was whispered to the pair at the bar who ordered it – maybe to suggest it might be a few bucks extra  cause they ran out of canned beer – which was quickly given an “ok” wave and within seconds caps were popping off and I could see one of the cooks sipping back a beer with his other hand holding some utensil and poking something on the grill.  How’s that for keeping the working stiff hydrated and happy! 🙂

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