The Gist: Beer focused tavern in the Fulton Market area from Paul Kahan with lots of oysters, vegetables, fish, pork, offal, and most recently a number of cured meats and terrines from Publican Quality Meats next door. According to Kahan, “pristine product, simply prepared,” and a spot that had long been on my ‘to-do’ list in the Windy City.
The Why: Being honest, Publican almost ‘missed the cut’ again on this trip because as much as I like the brunch menu, I always felt like the restaurant would be better experienced as a dinner with a few other people in order to share around the hefty farm-to-table fare. The reason myself and Rich landed here on Sunday was because Nightwood’s menu for the day was dull and the best items sold out. That said, having had nothing but outstanding experiences at Blackbird and Avec, Publican was an easy choice (and all the more so as I’d spent a lot of time checking out PQM, tasting charcuterie, and chatting with the butchers during the previous days.)
The Reservation: Brunch is offered until 2:00pm according to the website. We arrived at 1:45pm, put our name on the list, and were told it would be ~30-45 minutes. Taking this time to wander over to PQM we returned to Publican in about twenty minutes and were allowed to stand at one of the high-tops inside while we waited. Theoretically we could have ordered food and eaten it right there, but we were in no rush so Rich ordered a cocktail as we waited for a table to open up.
The Space: Know this going in – Publican is loud, an effect of the high ceilinged design harkening a European beer hall and the fact that the place is filled to capacity with people drinking both European and domestic beers. With simple lines clearly the focus both for form and function and a large glass parlor up front I personally really enjoy the space because despite being crowded and heavily wooded the large windows (on our day open to the mild Chicago weather) and high ceilings convey an airy sense of openness.
With communal tables including an enormous banquet at the center of the room, standing cocktail tables as a waiting (or eating) option near the bar, and clever stalls with swinging doors against the back of the room Rich and I were sat at a nice two-top near the window, partially isolated from the noise and able to dine nearly al fresco with sun and breeze at our side. With silverware and plates cleverly reminiscent of days past, the room is completed with a partially open kitchen in the back while walls decorated with several large hogs surround a rectangle of 50+ glowing orbs suspended from the ceiling.
The Service: Like all Kahan restaurants the service is cool but not ‘too cool,’ present without being overbearing, plus friendly, efficient, and knowledgeable. For our meal, the man embodying all of the above qualities was named Kial and although working at least ten tables our water and my coffee never neared empty.
The Food (and rarely drink): A La Carte, 2 appetizers, 2 mains, 1 dessert.
Coffee: Roasted by Intelligentsia and sold at PQM next door in whole bean form this is a very smooth blend that pairs beautifully with both the savory plates and the sweets. Low notes are cocoa laden, the finish is slightly spicy, and the body is thick – particularly at home via French Press.
Spicy Pork Rinds: Think Cheetos but lighter, more crispy, and imbued with the sapor of swine plus a touch of smoke and a bit of heat from a dusting of esplette. They’re as delicious as the rumors and the portion filling a paper cone is generous to say the least.
Pecan Sticky Bun: When the weakest course of brunch is one of the better sticky buns you’ve had in recent memory I think you can rest assured that you just ate a damned fine meal. Thick and buttery brioche, ample use of caramelized pecans and cinnamon, swirls of cinnamon and a touch of sea salt – definitely a dish to be shared and a perfect sweet to pair with the must-order porkrinds.
Bucatini alla carbonara – pork belly, egg, parmesan: Rich’s order of the afternoon and an excellent take on the classic dish subsituting fresh bucatini for spaghetti and supple pork belly with crisp skin for bacon. Bearing in mind the restaurant’s moto this was perhaps the most ‘simple’ dish of the afternoon and as expected the ingredients were all impeccable.
Maple glazed pork shoulder, sunny side up egg, polenta, braised kale, pickled corn: Like everything that preceded it there were no surprises in this dish; no gimmicks, no ‘modernist technique,’ no foams or spheres, just exemplary ingredients perfectly prepared and garnished simply with scallions, salt, and pepper. Crispy pork with a touch of sweetness, toothsome polenta with a touch of cheese, crispy kale with a hint of smoke, a bit of acid to cut the fat, and an egg to meld it all together…the only thing lacking was bread or a sauce spoon to mop up the rest of the yolk.
Waffle – Raspberry Jam and Honey Butter: Highly recommended by a number of people as the ‘must order’ of the breakfast menu and a signature of the restaurant’s dinner dessert menu Rich and I decided to split one as a capper to a heavy meal and while I’m generally a pancake or French toast over waffles sort of guy I must admit this is as good as waffles get in my personal experience; crispy and crunchy – nearly caramelized – on the exterior, yet fluffy and yeasty on the interior and topped with smooth slightly salted butter plus an ample helping of house made raspberry jam plus bourbon barrel aged maple syrup.
The Verdict: Like Blackbird and Avec before it I give Publican my highest marks for its genre and while some may be put off by the loud ‘gastropub’ feel of the space I would come back in a heartbeat, particularly as there is now a Saturday brunch that is entirely different from the Sunday brunch plus a dinner menu that looks even more inspired than either of the daytime offers. With great food, great service, and the addition of Publican Quality Meats to the family it is only a matter of time before Chef Kahan takes home a Beard Award for best restaurateur and there is little doubt that I’ll continue to visit each new spot as the empire grows.