Speaking of Caitlin, although I am just now getting around to writing about it, the two of us recently went out to sample the fare at The Publican, darling of the 2009 Chicago restaurant scene. After reading about it in every local foodie publication, every national publication and even spotting it on the Food Network's The Best Thing I Ever Ate, my curiosity was beyond piqued. It is, however, the kind of restaurant that Dad (my most-frequent dinner companion) would hate -- too trendy, too noisy, too foodie-centric, so it took a while before I discovered that Caitlin was also curious about the place, and we were able to find a mutually convenient time to eat there.
The Publican is located in the Fulton Market District, sort of Chicago's version of Manhattan's trendy Meatpacking District. It's a slightly incongruous mix of butchers and meat/seafood wholesalers with high-end, destination restaurants, such as molecular gastronomy mecca, Moto. It took virtually an entire hour to get there on public transit after work, despite being only a few miles away, but in this case, the destination far exceeded the journey.
The Publican is the third restaurant by James Beard Award-winning Chicago chef and restaurateur Paul Kahan of Avec and Blackbird fame. A gastropub concept, its menu focuses on a tremendous selection of European beers along with snacks, charcuterie, and entrees centered around the whole livestock that are butchered in-house. The interior plays on the feel of a central-European beer hall, with lots of blond wood, communal tables (which contributes to the noise factor), rustic portraits paying homage to the pigs that are the focus of the menu, and a veritable forest of globe light fixtures. Caitlin and I both enjoyed the atmosphere, although I did have a hard time following our conversation at various points throughout the meal.
We ordered an almost embarrassing amount of dishes, overwhelmed as we were by the bounty of interesting choices on the menu. We started off with a plate of vegetables that had been pickled in-house, which Caitlin had ordered while she was waiting for me to arrive. It wasn't my favorite thing that we had that evening, but I suppose it was beneficial to balance the meat-heavy meal with at least some vegetables.
Next, we tried the homemade pork rinds (which had been the featured item on The Best Thing I Ever Ate), and the chef's selection of three hams, sliced paper-thin. Although Caitlin enjoyed the pork rinds, pronouncing them, "Just like bacon-flavored air!" I discovered that pork rinds aren't high on my list of preferred snackfoods. Of the three hams, my favorite was the Serrano ham from Spain (naturally, the most expensive of the bunch), followed by the Querica ham from Iowa, and I did not much care for the Kentucky country ham on our plate. The tasting notes listed on the menu described it as "sweet and clean" but in my experience, it was creamy, but unpalatably salty.
For a main course, Caitlin paired a selection of oysters that she seemed to enjoy, with a side dish of corn inspired by the traditional Mexican preparation -- grilled and accompanied by a chili-lime aioli. Boringly, on a menu full of offal and tempting pork dishes, I opted for the half roasted chicken, mostly because it came with a side of frites (which I would have ordered as an appetizer had it not been for the ham tasting), and sausage (and I am totally a sucker for encased meats in all their forms.) It turns out that I need not have been ashamed for ordering the safest item on the menu -- it was, I think, the most delicious chicken I have ever eaten. The meat was perfectly prepared, moist, succulent, and flavored through and through. It was unbelievably good!
Although I was already stuffed, and I was not seriously entertaining the idea of dessert, Caitlin persuaded me to share the chocolate tart with her, and I was glad I did. It came in a crisp, wafer-like crust, with a layer of oozing salted caramel, a layer of dark chocolate ganache, and a scoop of fruity olive oil-flavored ice cream that paired surprisingly well with the other flavors. The tart provided the perfect ending to a decadent meal.
My only complaint about the evening, besides the ambient noise-level, was the cost of the meal itself. In all the reviews I had read prior to the dinner, The Publican was hailed for its affordability. Perhaps that estimation was formed in contrast to the prices at Kahan's other enterprises, because the total tab, including one beer for each of us, tax, and tip, came to $106! That is not a sum I am accustomed to spending on dining out! In one fell swoop, I had blown out a disproportionately large amount of my September entertainment budget. Delicious as everything was, I can't imagine I'll be returning to the Publican again soon, unless a special occasion arises.
I do think it is worth making a comparison here, in terms of restaurant hype. Last month, Dad and I checked out another new-ish restaurant that has been the recipient of a great deal of positive press -- Province. Dad is always complaining about what a rut we are in with our dining choices, so I selected Province as a new place for us to try. The decor was a little avant garde for his taste, consisting largely of neon pink walls and branches hanging from the ceiling, but I thought the food would appeal to him, based on what I had read.
I was vastly mistaken. Although the food included several interpretations of contemporary American cuisine, they did not take kindly to Dad's customary requests for alterations to the menu. Clearly, the chef wants the customer to appreciate his vision and challenge their palates instead of catering to the whims of the clientele. I sampled the shrimp and grits as and appetizer, which was the dish most heralded in all the reviews I had read, often cited as being the finest example of the southern classic to be found in the city. I hope there aren't many places you can find shrimp and grits in the city, because if these were the best, I'd hate to see what else is available. Neither Dad nor I cared much for our entrees either, and, given the deplorable level of service and long wait-times for the food we had received so far, we decided to skip dessert.
It just goes to show, you can't believe everything you read. Both Province and The Publican had received a lot of hype, and my expectations were set high for both, but only The Publican delivered. In the end, the only opinion that matters is your own.