Revisiting Chicago Restaurant Stalwarts: Are They Still Good? – The Publican – PART ONE

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How much effort should it take to get a table?

I’ve always been a fighter. I clicked refresh like an over-caffeinated gamer for Next tickets. I’ve outwaited Au Cheval, even though I suspect their text notifications are designed to ping the moment you put down a new order at a nearby bar. Like the British, I’ve made queuing a pastime.

But why am I scraping and scrabbling like an extra in Mad Max: Fury Road just for a table at Giant, Bavette’s, and Girl & the Goat—all places I enjoy—when two of the best restaurants are easier to get into than Greendale Community College?

The Publican and the Bristol are both pioneers in the Chicago culinary scene, responsible for helping usher in the new wave of meat-centric gastropub-style restaurants a decade ago. Many have followed, many have failed.

The Publican

At a recent meal, this place had one of the highest hit rates, going four for five on dishes. Almost the moment we ordered, plates were dropped down in front of us. A quick word on the service: the pacing of the coursing is erratic. A year ago I experienced a six-person dinner in barely over an hour. Even accounting for turnover needs, The Publican’s expediting is well… expedited. This time it was more of the same speed, with a 20 minute lull in the middle. Which is a shame since the service is utterly warm, dancing gracefully around us and offering to help with photos on occasions.

But the first stone in the avalanche is a tasty one.

On an ever-changing menu, one of the signatures remains the barbecued carrots. Roasted into thick, meaty planks and aggressively spiced, these charred roots are nothing like the lifeless crudites mocking you from some low-rent party platter. Drizzled with herbed cream and pecans for crunch, they’re given a breath of lightness by scattered dill. It’s a savory, gobsmacking dish that reads like a main protein.

Pork belly arrives in glistening prisms of fatty meat. It’s incredibly satisfying smearing the feta on and splashing through the faint chile broth underneath. And the restaurant has an incredible hand with herbs, when other places tend to weigh things down. My only issue is that at $27 for such a cheap cut, there could’ve been more.

Recently, I’ve sworn off ordering crudos. Too often you end up paying $16 for four miserly pieces, their delicate flavor overwhelmed by single slices of serrano or buried by sunflower seeds or some other nonsense. I suggest you go to a dedicated sushi spot with quality fish like Kai Zan or knock off to one of the infinite poke places that are sprouting up like Starbucks around the city. The Publican’s yellowtail escabeche features some similar components: sliver-thin slices of jalapeno, artfully placed spinach leaves, topaz wedges of grapefruit. But instead of four meager slices of raw fish there are six meaty hunks of seared beauty atop a cooling aioli. Instead of the citrus and chile drowning them out, they offer counterpoint. It’s a beautiful see-what-I-can-do moment from a place that celebrates its “oysters, pork, & beer” rep on its own website.

But the Publican certainly does its reputation for offal justice. We ordered beef tongue, a favorite of our dad, while I waited skeptically for that familiarly offputting texture I grew up eating in awful porridges. This time there were charred and gooey red hunks that more resembled pork belly except for their intensely bovine flavor. Piled generously on hearty toast with chive-spiked boursin cheese and bursting acidity from sungold tomatoes and yes—more herbs, it was possibly the best dish of an already impressive night.

The only aforementioned miss were the country ribs, sadly meant as the pièce de résistance. Resembling nothing so much as pork chops, you could tell immediately these were charred and petrified into fossildom, a shame since a coriander dressing lent a surprisingly strong yet subtle grace note to an often boring cut.

A recent brunch continued the same line of occasional flaws and numerous strengths. Our server was delightful and ready with some easy banter. This time, however, the waits were long, especially with the check, which took about half an hour. But we were in no rush. We drank in the sun on the patio in glorious weather. And if the unending construction on Fulton Street Market was ugly, it prevented the exhaust of traffic.

And as we waited, we stared enviously at other tables as their food arrived, until it was our turn to be the object of envy. I’m not a huge fan of biscuits and gravy, finding it a heavy, ham-fisted dish. This one was leavened with pickled onions and the gravy, instead of being a leaden, soupy mess was significantly punched up with merguez. It made an impression on my friend, who is usually not a fan of aggressive ground meats like chorizo.

Accompanying sides provided extra accent. Pork belly was reliably maple-kissed, albeit less cost effective than Au Cheval’s. A pecan sticky bun was a bit of a disappointment. A little dry, a little undersauced. They can struggle with their sweets.

Meanwhile my porchetta was a gloriously sunny dish. Cornbread, Calabrian chile cream, and more of the familiar sungold tomatoes in conjunction with a pair of sunny-sides made a color-coded alliteration of yellow-orange. It was beautiful, savory, spicy, and light on its feet. My only complaint was the porchetta could’ve been sliced thicker instead of the delicate folds to give something toothier to bite into. At that thin a cut, it was hard to taste the porkiness. I would still order it again and again.

The Publican follows a fairly simple formula. Heavy meat, acidic component, creamy sauce, bright greens. It would get boring if it didn’t work so damned well.

I find its cooking so strongly reminiscent of Stephanie Izard’s Girl & the Goat, both extraordinarily muscular styles with delicacy around the edges. Minus a much more dedicated and superior dessert program, the only difference is the celebrity name. Exec Cosmo Goss has been at it for almost exactly a year, continuing a long line of Publican chefs who’ve cycled in and out of Paul Kahan’s One Off Hospitality incubator of anonymous talents. You should know the name Cosmo Goss; it’s a pretty memorable one.

 

 

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