This past Friday, some friends and I dined at The Publican in the Fulton Market in Chicago for a farewell dinner, as one among us was moving back to Europe to complete a Ph.D. I had dinner here once before, and was impressed with how well the restaurants pulls off the upscale-casual vibe. The reasons for its popularity are manifold – the food is relatively cheap for a Paul Kahan-helmed restaurant, the beer selection is excellent, and Midwesterners love meat.
The restaurant is designed in the style of a beer hall: the large, open, rectangular room contains a few private booths, but most patrons dine communally at long tables. A nice touch: the tables are padded underneath for the comfort of guests’ knees, and as one of our party pointed out, to absorb sound. The synergy of wood and overhead incandescent lighting suffuses the room with a warmth that is a welcome respite from the dipping winter temperatures in Chicago.
I tried to book a reservation two days before our visit, but none was available until 10 pm. We showed up crossing our fingers and were escorted to one of the bar tables. In honour of our departing friend, we ordered German beer, accompanied by gouda and the famous pork rinds. The Kapuziner Weissbier (wheat beer) was refreshing and full-bodied without being too heavy. The Publican’s amuse-bouches de résistance, the pork rinds, are sensationally good: crunchy, not overly greasy, impeccably dusted with spices (one of which I believe is paprika), and a perfect accompaniment to a brew. This is a great example of elevated “lowly food”. Luckily, we arrived early and were seated shortly after receiving our bar order. The bar area was overflowing about an hour after we arrived, and it would have been much more difficult to secure a table.
We settled on four main courses. First up: Bouchot mussels from Maine in butter and gueuze. The alcohol balanced the thick fattiness that can hamper a butter sauce, although the sauce seemed to get saltier as we got to the bottom of the pan. Slices of grapefruit were an unexpected sight on top of country ribs, but their low acidity and slight sweetness were surprisingly effective at bringing out the full flavour of the pork. Curiously, the suckling pig on top of grits tasted like Chinese-style pork, and this made it the least memorable dish for me. The boudin blanc’s uniform, smooth texture contrasted well with fingerling potatoes.
The Publican is a great place to take out-of-town guests to experience, at a reasonable price, the variety of dining experiences that Chicago offers. And I guarantee that they won’t be able to resist an order of beer and pork rinds.