One of my "foodie" buddies from Chicago told me a long time ago, "Man, you've got to go to The Publican. Oh, buddy, is it good!" And knowing how eclectic and snobbish his tastes are, for him to rave about a place like The Publican, well, it has to be damned good. It turned out that one evening on a recent visit to Chicago I was able to try the place thanks to a little inside juice from one of my dealers. So, here's the story on my visit to The Publican.
The Publican burst on the scene a little over two years ago offering European style dining - a gastropub, if you will - with farm to table foods, eclectic beers and an English-style pub with tiered tables where people can have drinks on one level, food on another and be able to lean on for conversations. The Publican is the culmination of a joint effort of restaurateurs Terry Alexander (Mia Francesca), Paul Kahan (Blackbird), Eduard Seitan (Blackbird, avec), and Donnie Madia (Blackbird). The group also is involved with trendy nightspots, Big Star and The Violet Hour.
Kahan (right) is the executive chef and Brian Huston is the chef de cuisine at The Publican. The menu features a number of entrees of pork from an organic farm outside of Dyersville, IA - Becker Lane Organic Farm. Kahan and Huston also feature a variety of oysters on the half shell, octopus from the Marshall Islands, Maine mussels and smoked salmon from Scotland. I was told the pork rinds are to die for. I'm not big on pork rinds, but I vowed to try some that evening.
The Publican also boasts over 100 eclectic beers from around the world. The beer director at The Publican - Michael McAvena - is in his late 20's, but has earned the reputation as being able to pick the best beers to compliment the food. Every bartender, server and manager at The Publican have also completed the first level of the Cicerone beer server certification course. They are part of a group of over 3000 people world-wide who have a distinct knowledge of beers, which beers to pair with what foods and the proper way to serve such eclectic beers. Ooooo.... I was gonna LOVE this place!
The Publican can be pretty tough to get into. On the weekends, lines will form out the door on W. Fulton Ave (see map). Even through the week, it's somewhat difficult to get into the place. But I had an "in" that evening - courtesy of my buddies who work at Decibel Audio.
The guys at Decibel Audio know their restaurants pretty well. They were the ones that turned me on to the very good Mirai Sushi restaurant last year. It turns out that they did the sound systems in nearly all the restaurants affiliated with The Publican, including the system at The Publican. I was in Chicago recently to do a training for the guys at Decibel Audio and after we were finished I offered to take them out to dinner. They had mentioned The Publican in passing and I said, "Yeah, I've heard a lot about that place. I'd like to go there."
Adam, the manager, said, "It may be tough to get into. It's a pretty popular place. I can call down there, though, and see if Katie (the manager) can get us in." A quick phone call to The Publican and the next thing you know Adam says, "OK, she can get us a table in 20 minutes."
It was a 10 minute drive to The Publican and about a five minute drive around looking for a parking space before we finally found one on a side street a couple blocks away. Parking in the area can be pretty tough - it's primarily a warehouse district - so valet parking is available at the door. But we didn't valet the car that night.
Upon entering the restaurant, there were hugs all around for the Decibel Audio boys from Katie, the manager, and Katie, the hostess that evening. Katie, the manager, playfully admonished them. "You guys haven't come to see us lately! We've missed you!"
Our table wasn't quite ready yet, so Katie, the hostess, asked if we'd like to go to the pub area and get a beer while we waited. The tables in the pub are nice and high, very sturdy and actually sort of comfortable to lean upon. They have hooks under the lowest tier so you can hang your coat up while you drink your beers.
The waitress in the bar area gave us a beer menu to look over. The menu is very heavy on Belgian-style beers and I'm not big on Belgian-style beers. And I didn't recognize nearly any of the beers on the menu. Some were high alcohol content, some had prices as high as $17 to $22 for a 12 oz. bottle. One beer - Goose Island's Rare Bourbon County Brand Stout - was $65 for a 22 oz. bottle. And it is rare - it was bottled just once in 2010 and permanently retired after that.
I settled on a Krankshaft Kolsch beer from Chicago's Metropolitan Brewery. It was a nice light-bodied blond ale that didn't fill me up before dinner. The other guys got some Belgian beers that I was not familiar with in the least. Adam was telling me about the sound system in the place and the troubles they had in making sure it would work properly in the large room. "This room is so loud when you get a ton of people in here. We had to find that right balance of making sure the music could be heard, but not make it so loud that it was going to be competition with people's conversations," he told me over a beer. "It's bad enough competition to have a conversation with someone across the table with all the other people talking in here." It was, indeed, a pretty loud place.
The decor at The Publican is akin to a Scandinavian beer hall - if there is such a thing. There's a long community table in the middle of the room with booths off to the side. Each booth has a heavy gate-like door that swings open to allow people in and out of the booth. That's where Katie eventually sat us.
We had a couple waiters working with us that evening, both of whom knew the guys from Decibel Audio. One of the waiters brought over a plate of assorted sliced hams, complements of Katie, the manager. The plate featured razor thin slices of a sweet country ham from Tennessee, a mild tasting ham from Iowa, and a smoked and forward tasting ham from Spain. The Publican's peasant bread and goat cream butter was served with the sliced hams. Oh, man. I was in heaven already! The Spanish ham was out of this world.
On top of the complementary plate of hams, Katie also sent over a complementary fruit salad for us to try. The combination of the greens and the mangos were a wonderful taste sensation.
Most of the entrees at The Publican can be shared and that's what we decided we'd do that evening. They had so much to offer and I wanted to try so much. We just began to order things and keep ordering as we went along.
The first two items brought to our table were the chef's choice of oysters on the half shell and a duck confit with shredded pork shoulder and jam appetizer (left). It was just outstanding. You scooped it on to a piece of bread and it was out of this world. In fact, if I really knew what was in it, I probably wouldn't have ordered it. But one of the guys knew what it was and he said it was great. And it was. It was going to take a lot to make the meal better than it already was.
The oysters - four each from Maine, Rhode Island and Washington state - were OK. They weren't the best oysters I've ever had and weren't large in size and a little gritty. But as I said they were just OK. One thing that they didn't serve with the oysters was Tabasco sauce or horseradish. But they did have their own style of shrimp sauce that came with the oysters.
The next thing that came out was a big bucket of steamed Maine mussels (below left). About half of them didn't open up (don't try and pry open the ones that didn't open) and another handful were barely open. I threw caution to the wind and ate a couple that were barely open. I could tell one wasn't edible, but it was too late. It was down the hatch. Later that evening, my gastro-intestinal system confirmed my earlier fear. But you don't want to hear about that. But the ones that were open were good and the sauce they cooked the mussels in was out of this world. We dipped peasant bread in the sauce and ate it, it was so good.
We had also ordered up the country ribs - but Adam warned me before we got them, "They're not what you think." When they brought them to the table, I was sort of surprised to see what were basically barbecued Illinois pork chops (above right). There was enough for each of us to get a couple three bites and it was very good. The pork was tender, the rub they used was sort of spicy, but not overpowering. On its own, it would have been a very good meal.
Are you still with me? I know this is getting long, but you've got to hang on just a bit longer to see what was the highlight of the evening.
The Publican has the most outrageous appetizers and sides on their menu. The pork rinds (below left) were as good as advertised. (They also comped us on the pork rinds because they forgot to bring them out when we first ordered them.) Served in a paper wrapper, they were spicy and mouth-meltingly good. And, oh, so rich and filling. Thankfully they came late in the meal when we'd already had mussels and ribs and oysters and... We would have never been able to eat much else had we gorged on the pork rinds. Like I said, I'm not big on pork rinds, but the ones at The Publican were outstanding.
But even better was something that was so stupidly simple that I could just kick myself for never having this before. It was an appetizer/side of two eggs cooked sunny side up placed on top of a plate of french fries (above right). Then you chopped the egg up on the fries. It was unbelievable. First of all, we all surmised the french fries were probably cooked in duck fat because they had a great taste on their own. But the egg whites and yolk on the fries were just outstanding. I almost ordered another plate of those, but we'd had so much food.
We had one other dish that I don't quite remember what it was. I believe it was a sweetbread (pictured right), but it wasn't served the way they describe in the menu. This was more of a side or appetizer than a main entree as described in the menu. But it was also very good. Really, it was all good, although the mussels were a tad disappointing (but the sauce more than made up for that), and the oysters were, once again, just OK.
The 2011 Michelin Guide for Chicago came out just before Christmas and I got a copy of the book for myself. The Publican was named a "Bib Gourmand" restaurant in the book, literally an honorable mention from Michelin for restaurants that are a great value, but still don't garner a Michelin star rating. The Publican was a great value - for four of us along with beers, the bill came to under $40 a person. Of course, we were comped on three items that would have brought the price up about $30 bucks more. But still, you can easily get a great meal with appetizers for two for under $100 bucks at The Publican. My snobbish foodie buddy was right on about the food at The Publican - overall, it was outstanding.