Anna and I shared our restaurant wish list with each other a few days before I was scheduled to fly to Chicago. I had told her that I was okay with ethnic and cheap with the exception of paying a visit to the city’s West Town neighborhood to dine at Publican, which recently earned its 2009 James Beard nomination for outstanding chef and restaurant design. A chef friend, who I met at the Spotted Pig’s Fergus Henderson event last year, had texted me earlier in the week to let me know that one of the waiters he had befriended during a recent visit to Chicago had told him about Publican’s latest efforts. I knew nothing of the restaurant because their Web site still wasn’t up before I visited, but I was ready to be impressed.
I told our waiter as much after we were seated next to the bar. It wasn’t a private table per se because the restaurant is spacious with communal tables and lofty ceilings, but being next to the kitchen kind of gave it some cachet. I requested for bar seating at the time of my reservation, but I had no idea I was actually going to be able to face my dining companions and enjoy a group conversation.
The funny thing is that I was psyched and prepared to eat all the offal offerings as soon as I glazed over the menu, but our waiter didn’t hear half of our initial order. We knew it wasn’t neglect on his part because we practically read the entire menu out loud to him. In the end, we got the right amount of food for four and I have to say that he narrowed everything down to showcase what Publican was trying to present.
The tied Monterey Bay sardines were bony but rewarding to pick on because of the dressing that came with it: yogurt, raisins and pine nuts. I want to be on the Mediterranean the next time I eat something like that with a plate of the same yellowtail crudo sprinkled with orange peel. We ordered the spicy pork rinds just like everyone else in the restaurant. They were airy and light with just a subtle hint of smoked paprika on them. We also shared one of the best charcuterie plates I’ve had in a while: scrapple, duck and foie gras terrine, pork pie and chorizo served with assorted pickles, capers and mustards. (Don’t get me started with wine bars calling a plate of just prosciutto “charcuterie special”.) The Basque stew of salt cod, shrimp, octopus, clams and mussels did not skimp on the broth’s flavor. I think we all felt bad that we had to share such a scrumptious bowl of goodness. A plate of sunchokes rounded out our meal with local Matilda Goose Island beers, a glass of rosé and a glass of port.
The homeyness and hospitality of Publican and its staff coupled with the company of good eaters and sharers made up for my missing the beef’s heart. I’ll definitely make the same trip again.
Publican is at 837 on West Fulton Market in Chicago, Illinois. You need to call for reservations at 312/733.9555 especially now that it’s on everyone’s radar. Our table for four right next to the bar was the perfect spot. You can buy the pig prints from the Tate Modern and blow them up as large as they did.