- Josh Tuck
- Josh Tuck
I didn’t know what to expect from a dinner at The Publican in Chicago. Those in the know all agreed it was a must for people serious about food and it certainly looked enticing from the photographs I had seen. Had I known we were blithely walking into a James Beard award-winning, beer-focused, farm-to-fork restaurant, I probably would have studied the menu harder before arriving; and skipped breakfast and lunch.
There was no time for second guessing myself as we stood in the dimly lit, dark wood-paneled entrance. On the walls were those James Beard awards and a few farm antiques displayed like museum artifacts. The hostess led us into the main dining hall, which was modeled after the great beer halls of Europe. We were seated at a long communal table bathed in soft luminescence from a grid of large, spherical ceiling lights. There was a long row of booths along the east wall. They had waist high wooden walls and gates and bore a striking resemblance to animal pens. Along the west wall was the bar, sparkling with shimmering glass and dimpled polished metal. At the back was an open view into the orderly kitchen. It was a slow night that evening and the hushed murmur of conversations quietly filled the space.
The menu at The Publican is a celebration of farm fresh food. Each item is sourced or thoughtfully prepared in such a way as to honor food preparation methods of the past. Dishes are simple and honest affairs that highlight the quality of the central, protein ingredient, rather than masking it under heavy sauces or spices.
We wanted to sample everything, but our mid-day snack/meal of dim-sum dictated that we would only be sharing a couple of smaller items. Instead of a steak or fish entrée, we opted for the somewhat lighter Charcuterie Plate and The Little Gem salad.
The Little Gem was a simple mix of romaine tossed with a marvelous buttermilk-based dressing, fennel, radish, and deep-fried strips of pig ear. After years of wondering, I finally knew why dogs went crazy for pig ears. We have essentially been handing them giant pieces of bacon. The crispy texture and salty flavor of the pigs ears were in perfect harmony with the subtle spiciness of the radish and the soft licorice notes of the fennel.
The Charcuterie Plate was a sampling of sausages, head cheeses, and other ”mixed internals” crafted in the old world style. Their textures varied from smooth and soft to chunky and firm. Each had a distinct and pronounced flavor. Various rustic mustards were provided for dipping, and a selection of vinegary pickles added contrast and helped clear the palate.
The meal felt more like a precursor to, what I hope, is a more complete evening next time. We’ve wrapped our heads around how the menu, and The Publican itself, can best be experienced. I’m anxious to return, sample more of the menu, and further appreciate the work these talented chefs are putting into each of their creations.