Seafood and Pigs. Pigs and seafood. And beer. That’s always a good way to go.
I was recently in Chicago for a night and decided I wanted to pursue an excellent meal, and so I began my planning with a previous experience. A few years ago, during a conference in Chicago, I went with a friend to Blackbird and enjoyed a lovely meal. Having recently watched Tony Bourdain’s No Reservations on television in which he went to Chicago, I knew that the proprietor of Blackbird, Paul Kahan, had opened another restaurant, avec, and that he was planning on a third in the same neighborhood. This restaurant, The Publican, seemed interesting, and I called and made a reservation for a spot to eat at the bar.
A sidenote: When I lived in New York, I had often enjoyed eating a meal at the bar by myself, making small talk with other diners at the bar and those waiting for a table. Sometimes I would go and nurse a good glass of wine and enjoy an appetizer and fantasize that I had received the full dining experience when I had only spent a fraction of the cost; no matter, I would say to myself, I would take what I could get – or afford. I can now afford a full meal at a fine restaurant, but I still sometimes desire that same experience of eating at the bar for the camaraderie and the immediacy of the experience.
The woman on the phone when I called the restaurant told me that it could get crowded at the bar, and after asking when things picked up, I inquired whether it was possible to reserve a spot there. Although they don’t normally do so, she relented after I told her I was visiting and just eating one dinner while in town.
Let me give you a sense of the place. The Publican is spare in temperament and in décor. The arrangement of the space reminded me of a Protestant church. There were long wooden tables that dominated the room, with some smaller tables for four seats or so arranged closer to the door. There were minimal table flourishes, and the chairs were high-backed wooden ones, with small and rather inconspicuous cushions on the seat. The overall effect is one of virtual severity – the furniture calls to mind the wooden pews of old New England churches. At the same time, the seating is in many ways democratic. Different dining parties eat at the long wooden tables, so you may well sit directly next to someone you do not know. There is little sense of hierarchy in the arrangement.
The seating at the bar is very similar, with the same types of chairs and a bar that is rather industrial in its design and use of metal and wood and glass. Diners there look up at the servers, seemingly beseeching them for a refill.
But there is no actual need to do this, as the service is outstanding. Soon after arriving, and receiving an escort to my spot at the bar, a bartender joined me with beer and food menus. She was incredibly attentive for the whole experience, though she never crowded me in the least. She was well-informed about both menus, and like all the other bartenders quite generous with samples of beer to help me locate the one I would most enjoy. The service rating would have to be truly excellent. As a point of information, I would have to relate that the staff seems to truly enjoy working at The Publican, as they smiled often over samples of beer at the bar, egging one another on to try something new and discover a new taste.
The beer menu is extensive and includes local breweries and makes a point of emphasizing Belgium beers. I decided on an Arctic Panzer Wolf and later tried a nice Wipeout IPA. Both of these were very much further down the hoppy scale, which tends to be my personal preference, but I can report that the restaurant offers a very wide range of beers, as well as a broad selection of wines.
Let’s talk about the food. Publican is a restaurant with an affinity for the pig and for the oyster. These are two of the main themes of the menu, and the entrees almost all have some element of pork to them. (To give you a full sense of its focus, there are four main artworks in the restaurant, one on each wall, and each is a portrait of a pig.) As someone who enjoys oysters, I ordered the chef’s selection for my appetizer, and was not disappointed. The chef chose three oysters from the East Coast and three from the West Coast. Two of the three of the latter were from Washington state and reminded me of some I had enjoyed in Seattle about seven years ago. The third was from British Columbia.
These three were nice, but I must say that I found that I was most attracted to the three from the East. (Of course, I grew up in Massachusetts and have been to Cape Cod every summer for about the last 27 years!) I loved the briny taste these three oysters, one of which was from Prince Edward Island, one from Nova Scotia, and one from Maine. Great texture, great flavor. And these went well with the beer.
For an entrée I ordered something not too large – a modest portion of Saucisson Sec. This dish combined pickled green beans, endive, parmesan, and rough, thick-cut salami. I had been a a bit curious how this dish would complement the oysters, and I can happily report that it did so quite nicely and that it really filled out what was going on with my palate in a complex way. Overall, high marks all around.
Let me give you a bit of a sequel, though. Upon the recommendation of the woman who was serving me, I went to Graham Elliot for a drink after dinner. She told me that the mixologist working at the bar there was someone not to miss, and she was right on the money. This young man was fabulous. He listened to what I had told him about my meal and about the beer I had had earlier and what my plan was for the rest of the evening. He then mixed me an excellent bourbon cocktail that I never would have imagined I would enjoy, let a long one I would have ordered following my meal. A great drink, and an excellent end to the night.
It seems that this is also an excellent restaurant, based on buzz I heard at Publican and the vibe at Graham Elliot itself, but I did not eat here and so can’t say based on my own experience. But have a drink there – you won’t regret it!
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