Two nights in Chicago: How to choose restaurants? I began the usual research, but when I was in DC in June, mentioned the trip to a fellow grape nut, the esteemed and multi-talented Lou Marmon, who reported a dream of a meal at The Publican. "Go," he responded in an uncharacteristically peremptory manner. "Trust me. You'll like it." Unaccustomed as I am to following directions, I did so.
The Publican, in Chicago's old meatpacking district, belongs to a small group of restaurants (something Chicago seems to do well over the years) that include Blackbird and Avec, among others, a lineage that augurs well. It's large and spare, with several looooong tables that provide communal seating. While there are many individual tables, the big tables are clearly part of the experience here, lots of groups of five or more were having a swell time at them. Yes, noise levels are high; outside tables fared better, since there was little street traffic.
Plenty of local produce, and meat via their sibling, Publican Quality Meats, a shop and catering venue across the street. (It also does food on the weekends.) A serious beer list, fittingly, as well as some interesting wine. They credit the farmer's market in Evanston, one of the older suburbs for inspiration and supplies.
Like The Agrarian this past spring, they're offering tastes of different ham as a starter, and it was a temptation, but we went in another directions, after much discussion. Many interesting things but we succumbed to temptation and had a chicken liver pate. This may have been the best example of the classic we've come across in decades. Rich and unctuous, as smooth as George Clooney, tasting of brandy that had been flamed, it was indecently good. A blueberry garnish was a nice contrast, not acidic, just a little punch of sweetness. And it was a remarkably generous serving.
Another clear winner was the frites, or fries, served Belgian style in a cone of newspaper with some mayonnaise for dipping, or, to be more accurate, lily-gilding. They're also available with eggs, presumably soft-cooked for dipping, but it's hard to imagine even the finest farm-fresh eggs - which I'm sure they are - could do much improving on these guys, hot, crisp, tasting of actual potato, a sterling example of tuberosity.
For entrees, we passed on the fresh sardines frpm Monterey Bay, a mistake I'm still muttering about. (The following night would be seafood at Shaw's Crab House, which didn't come up to its previous standards, as it turned out.) A vegetarian dish of romano beans with small heirloom tomatoes, farro and farmers cheese was happily satisfying, the flat green beans more flavorful than their more common cousins, and the farro giving a nice toothy chew to the dish.
The dish titled "country rib" intrigued me; The meaty and sometimes bone-free versions we find in supermarkets here never seem to make it onto restaurant menus, and here was...well, something with the same name, at least. It definitely wasn't the same cut, less lean, more connective tissue and rather erratic bone pieces, and less than an inch thick. But it was juicy and piggy in flavor, rubbed with a little coriander that played well off its sidekicks, seasonal peaches that were sweet-tart and rings of ripe Fresno pepper, a fine combination of flavors to play off the pork.
Vacherin is not just the name of two cheeses made in France and Switzerland. It's also the name of a classic dessert, now seldom seen but just the sort of thing to make a comeback these days, when desserts at a certain price level must consist of several different items made separately and then put together (sort of a pie ala mode graduate school project). The vacherin begins with a crisp meringue shell, and is filled with fruit and/or whipped cream and/or ice cream. The publican's wore three kinds of ice cream, raspberry, vanilla and passionfruit, whipped cream, gigantic raspberries and a little candied lemon peel. The crunchy meringue is a fine contrast to the smooth and the cool and the fruit. We should see more variations on the vacherin.
A considerable amount of online muttering about service here, but things were very busy and we mostly were taken very good care of, water glasses kept full, tables bussed, almost none of the dreaded hundred-mile stare - and considering how many tables our server was covering, it may have just been surveying that couple across the room.
I went. I trusted. I liked it.
837 W. Fulton Market, Chicago
Dinner nightly, Brunch Sat.-Sun.
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Fair