When you only have one night to dine in Chicago, the decision can be impossible. Blow-out gastronomical tasting at Alinea? Too intense. Hit the bar at fully-booked Girl and the Goat and hope for space? Too iffy. Take a beer- and pork-afficionado friend to beer-and-pork mecca The Publican? We have a winner.
The restaurant is loud and bustling, with communal tables running the length of it, along with semi-private four-top booths along the windows. Don't let the tables put you off, though; it's not really much different from dining in any restaurant where the tables along the banquette are very close together, and for the most part the close quarters with one's neighbors remain minimally intrusive.
I know I'm in the right place when my server, upon explaining the menu, notes, "We understand not everything cooks at the same rate, so we encourage you to order everything together, and we'll course it out for you." Too often, restaurants that don't follow a traditional service (one appetizer and one main course per person) bring dishes haphazardly. It shows great attention to the dining experience when a restaurant plans to pace the meal despite a nontraditional set-up -- small snacks, appetizers, medium-sized plates one might share or not, and family-style entrees all make an appearance on Publican's menu.
And oh, what a menu. The Publican is known, as mentioned above, for beer and pork, although it goes far beyond that: seafood, including a nicely-sourced raw bar, and vegetables from local farmers all are well represented. In fact, just about everything on the menu lists its provenance; you know what brewery, what farm, what butcher was responsible for everything in your glass or on your plate. One of the things I enjoyed, though, is that the nose-to-tail ethic at work isn't forced upon the diner. Read the blurb, think about it, or don't think about it and just enjoy your food.
My dining companion enjoyed the Monk's Café Flemish Sour Red Ale ($6), which the server accurately described as more sweet-and-sour than traditionally sour. He easily suggested alternatives for someone looking for a less unusual beer, but the Monk's was a welcome change from the expected. The next beer, the Brauerei Heller-Trum ($10), seemed to complement the multiple courses we enjoyed.
(I stuck to a very drinkable Argentinian sustainable pinot noir for $12. So sue me.)
Then, the food. Oh, my. There's a reason I had a salad for lunch before showing up to dinner.
daily pickles ($4): superbly pickled cauliflower, cucumber pickles that were just shy of being sweet enough to register as bread-and-butter, and pickled onions and beets (I think). A couple plates of these with a beer and some oysters in the bar would make a perfect light night out.
spicy pork rinds ($5): a huge cone of ethereally fried bites, coated with a spicy, cheesy dust, these were ridiculously addictive, the heat level building just gradually enough to keep me coming back for more even though I knew I had to pace myself.
serrano; half taste of ham ($14): some of the most flavorful and richest serrano I've ever tasted, with excellent country bread and slightly-too-cold butter.
frites ($5): my only quibble with these is that I wanted them to arrive with the next course; luckily, it came shortly after they did. My desert-island food is excellent French fries, and these fit the bill; double-fried to be crispy but thick enough to retain a creamy, potato-y middle, and salted just enough, with Belgian mayonnaise, I could have eaten the entire cone (and may have had more than my fair share, I'm sure).
spicy steak tartare, radishes, fennel & lovage ($17): the radish and fennel set of the perfectly spiced meat; a few bits of meltingly tender (and yes, raw) beef followed by a couple of crispy frites was perhaps my favorite combination of dishes of the evening.
squid, broccoli, peanuts & apricot-chili vinaigrette ($15): my dining companion doesn't enjoy seafood, so I had this all to myself, and what a dish to get to savor alone! The squid, roasted in an earthenware dish, was tender yet hearty, and incredibly flavorful; the broccoli acquired the nuttiness of the roast, set off deliciously by the peanuts and the sweet-spicy sauce.
country ribs, maitake mushrooms & kohlrabi, half order ($15): grilled to create an exceptional crust and yet not tough inside, with the meatiness of the maitake highlighting just how satisfying at an almost primal level this dish can be, this dish was almost too rich (and definitely too much) at the end of the meal, but well worth the indulgence.
chocolate-banana budino with coffee gelato & cocoa nibs ($7): did we need dessert? No. Was this outstanding? Caramelized bananas with a rich, dark-but-not-too-dark chocolate pudding, set off by the bitter cocoa nibs and the essence of coffee in the creamy gelato? Oh, yes.
Heading out into the light drizzle, I was seriously tempted to turn around, head back to the bar, and nurse a drink while watching what else came of the clearly talented kitchen. Chicago has a vibrant dining scene, and there are many more restaurants I need to get to, but it will be darn hard not to come back here each time, for a small plate, a drink, and, well, maybe just one or two other little tastes ...