Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Chicago Part I - The Publican

The Publican - Chicago

When my mom suggested a mother/daughter trip to Chicago this Spring, I immediately started thinking about where we would eat (big surprise, right?) I tried to find places that would be interesting and unique, but not too "out there" or expensive. Mom had mentioned she'd like to try Cafe Spaggia, a less expensive annex of the Obamas favorite restaurant in Chicago, so I made a reservation there for Sunday (which also happened to be Mothers' Day.) One night down, two more to go. Since we were going to a late afternoon Second City show - I decided to make one more reservation and leave one evening open for something casual - maybe pizza, or one of Chicago's other signature delights, like Hot Italian Beef sandwiches or Chicago Dogs. I thought about Avec or Blackbird, but Avec doesn't take reservations, and I was concerned about the wait on a Friday night. I made a reservation at Blackbird initially, figuring if we could get into Avec we'd cancel it - but then I heard about The Publican, the slightly more casual and even less expensive little sister to both restaurants - which conveniently does take reservations.
The Publican - Chicago

The Publican bills itself a modern Belgian beer hall, and true to form, it features an extensive and interesting beer selection and a menu of large and small dishes intended for sharing. The dining room is large and airy with ball shaped light fixtures over the bar area, and wood and glass doors that fold open onto the sidewalk - a nice effect in the early evening with warm air and sunlight streaming in. The walls sport large, stylized depictions of the chef's favorite muse - the pig.
Mom checking out the Publican - Chicago

The menu is varied and enticing, with a selection of simple but interesting dishes: fresh oysters, a selection of shaved hams, large plump mussels served in a big copper pot (a serving large enough for two), housemade rillettes, a housemade charcuterie platter, housemade pickles, a roasted "farm chicken" with summer sausage and a flank steak sliced and piled high with green garlic, pecans and feta cheese. James' grandmother always believed everything was better with an egg on top and I'm sure she would have loved it here. They offer frites with an organic egg, and the best dish we ordered - a ragout of spring vegetables including chard, fresh peas and asparagus - was also topped with one and showered with grated cheese.
Menu at the Publican - Chicago
We always share food in my family, and none of us are big eaters, so we basically ordered a meal to share - a side of the housemade pickles, the rillettes, the farm chicken with summer sausage and frites, and a side of collard greens. The pickles came first and paired nicely with the fresh levain bread and butter on the table.
Rilettes at the Publican - Chicago

When the rillettes arrived, my mom was a little put off by the congealed fat the chunks of meat were preserved in. Think duck confit before it's pulled out of the fat and cooked, or carnitas before they're fried. Spread thinly on buttered toast with the rhubarb and currant jam it was a perfect snack with my crisp Belgian lager. Still, I could only eat so much (the serving is at least enough for four people) and when the server returned, he asked if we had liked it. Mom spoke up, "It's all fat!" Of course, so is butter, but you usually don't get a whole bowl of it to eat with a spoon. He handled it well, giggling a bit and saying "Well I guess that's what I like about it!"
Spring Veg with Egg and Pecorino at the Publican

Since that hadn't gone over so well, I saw an opportunity to add another dish to the menu - a ragout of spring vegetables topped with a farm egg and shaved pecorino romano cheese. This turned out to be the belle of the ball - a pitch perfect saute of green spring peas, asparagus and chard, sauced with butter and topped with a runny egg. It arrived with the farm chicken with sausage and frites, and the side of collard greens with grit fritters. Mom also didn't like the collard greens, because they weren't cooked down to melting (it's a southern thing) but I loved them. They were limp but still firm, flavored with bacon and a bit of vinegar, and topped with the little puffed fried pillows of grits - a whimsical touch that added a nice bit of crunch.
Chicken with Summer Sausage and Fries and Collards at the Publican - Chicago

The chicken I found a little ordinary. I missed the "summer sausage" designation on the menu, and was surprised to find three slices of sausage that tasted just like Hickory Farms' on the plate. The fries were fine, as was the chicken, but the dish just wasn't all that special. It was also extremely salty. We were envious of our neighbors, who had ordered the mussels, followed by the flank steak. They were gracious enough to let me snap a photo, and even offered bites - which we declined (though I was tempted.)
Mussels at the Publican

The dessert menu offered three choices, an almond financier, a crisp waffle with lemon confit, and chocolate pot de creme topped with sugared walnuts. I liked the choices and I was intrigued by the waffle, but we decided we were were just too stuffed. Before we could tell the server this though, he arrived bearing the chocolate pot de creme - on the house, because my mother hadn't liked the rillettes. (He also took it off the bill.) It was a sweet gesture, no pun intended, and the pot de creme was very good. The coffee I ordered to go with it was excellent as well.
Chocolate Pot de Creme at the Publican

With the reasonable pricing, the originality of the menu and the comfortable but lively atmosphere, I think the Publican is delivering what many people are looking for in a dining experience these days. It has an intelligent sensibility without being intimidating, and will deliver an original and interesting meal (if you order properly) without breaking the bank. It's a place you could go on a date or with some friends, and even singles belly up in the bar area for a beer and some chicharrones. If I were looking for a place to go with a crowd or just a good weeknight bite, this place would be at the top of my list. If I lived here, I'm pretty sure I'd be a regular.

The Publican
845 W Fulton Market
Chicago, Illinois
(about ten minutes from downtown - just outside the Loop)
(312) 733-9555
reservations available on Open Table

Frank Bruni posted his review of the Publican yesterday - you can read it here, and don't miss the slideshow!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Pizza, Pizza!

Ever heard that old saying - that bad sex is like bad pizza? Even when it's bad, it's still pretty good? Yeah, I don't actually believe that, and - if I may be so bold - neither should you.
Quattro Formaggio Pizza at Delfina Pizzeria

Good pizza really is worth the trouble it takes to find, and bad pizza - well, it just isn't worth the time it takes to eat it. Growing up, I didn't actually like pizza much (which may explain in part why I'm kinda picky about it) but I did like the crust - I even remember telling a few bemused adults that it was my favorite food. Not surprisingly, it's still my favorite part of the pizza. I like it crisp on the edges, with a bit of chew. Overall I prefer a thin savory pizza with a thin layer of salty, gooey cheese, and at least a smear of sauce.
Mmm..... Pizza with Pancetta and Peppers

In the Bay Area I've found pizza that more or less meets these requirements in a few places - but Oliveto Cafe in Oakland stands out among them. I have only had it once, so I'm not sure I could guarantee a repeat performance, but the pie pictured above, topped with pancetta and Italian frying peppers, was about the best I've ever tasted. (I've been a fan of Oliveto Cafe going back to the days when I lived up there in the late 90s - and still am, though it's changed significantly since then.) Pizzeria Delfina is also pretty good, though I actually like their other items a lot better than the pizza. Their charcuterie, fresh housemade cheeses (ricotta and mozzarella) and the seasonal vegetable dishes kick their pizza's ass, in my opinion. Delfina's pizza is cooked in a gas oven, whereas Oliveto's oven is wood burning, which may account for some of the difference.

In San Diego - a few New York and Chicago-style joints have distinguished themselves - Bronx, A Sicilian Thing, Luigi's, and Lefty's among them - but in terms of wood-fired Cal-Ital style we've been a little lacking.  Sammy's has it's merits, but isn't quite what I'm talking about. Thankfully, the addition of Blind Lady Alehouse to the local dining scene and the new mobile wood-burning pizza vendor at the Little Italy Mercato go a long way toward solving this problem.
Sausage Pizza at Blind Lady Ale House in San Diego

Oddly enough, the "Blind Lady" moniker comes not from a woman who could not see - but from the fact that the site used to house a shop selling window blinds. Aaron LaMonica - a former sous chef at Region - is turning out thin-crust artisanal pizzas, salads and a few sides (including some very good mussels.) Don't miss the ice cream sandwiches hand made by former Region pastry chef Rachel Going - they're worth the trip in and of themselves.

Blind Lady has a unique ordering system that requires you to walk up to a counter and place your beverage and food orders separately. It's best to order your food and get a number, then step to your left and pore over the extensive beer menu. (If it's a Wednesday or Saturday, you can ask Andy - the tall, handsome guy in the cool glasses - to help you make your choice.) There are a lot of unusual brews, Belgian, local and artisanal - which should come as no surprise given that Lee Chase, a former Head Brewer at Stone Brewing Company, is one of the owners.
Egg and Bacon Pizza at Blind Lady Alehouse in San Diego

The pizzas are thin crusted and large enough for two to share, and are divided into two categories on the menu - the more or less "every day" varieties, and some more elaborate specialty pizzas. On two visits I've had the Salciccia pizza (one of the standards) and loved it - and the two specialty pizzas I've tried - the Asparagus and Speck with Spring Onion and Lemon Zest and the "Bacon and Egg" pizza have both been delicious - the Asparagus and Speck probably being my favorite. The Chorizo is also fantastic.

Their salads are a bit more of a mixed bag. On my first visit the produce on the avocado and citrus plate was perfect, but the chile vinaigrette was a little too bitter. On another occasion, the caesar salad was over-dressed, and the anchovy flavor was overwhelming. The spinach salad with dates however is a perfect savory/sweet combination.
Mobile Wood Burning Pizza at the Farmers Market in San Diego

At the Little Italy Mercato on Saturday mornings (on Date Street in Little Italy) Principi's is turning out wood fired pizzas, breakfast sandwiches and flatbreads from their mobile woodburning oven.
Principi's - Mobile Wood Burning Pizza at the Little Italy Farmers Market in San Diego

The breakfast sandwiches include farm fresh eggs and Siesel's bacon or homemade sausage, and the pizzas available on the day I visited included sausage with spring onion, and artichoke with sage and green garlic - as well as margherita. The fava been puree flatbread also looked wonderful, with a rich, vibrant green topping.

Menu for the Mobile Wood Burning Pizza Stand at the Little Italy Farmers Market in San Diego

I made a special request for a child sized sausage pizza and they kindly obliged. It was crisp and chewy and the housemade sausage was flavorful - a nice tide you over bite or lunch while walking around the market. I'd like to try their breakfast sandwiches too - a good excuse for a return trip.
Wood Burning Pizza at the Little Italy Farmers Market in San Diego

Blind Lady Alehouse
3416 Adams Ave
San Diego
open for lunch Sat and Sun - dinner six nights a week - closed Mon.

More Pizza Posts:
John's in New York
Oliveto Cafe
Pizzeria Mozza
Pizzeria Delfina

Monday, May 04, 2009

Nate and Sarah's Kitchen

Nate and Sarah's Kitchen
Don't you just want a bite of that cupcake? This kitchen belongs to the friends whose 40th Birthday we were in San Francisco to celebrate this weekend. Nate did the painting himself, as well as a couple of other great pieces that hang in their house. (I've tried to commission one, but so far no dice.) I also love the espresso machine - and the cups sitting next to the stove, which are porcelain but made to look like crumpled paper. Nate and Sarah have great style, no doubt about it.

San Francisco Treat - Dynamo Donuts

Dynamo Donuts and Coffee in the Mission

This past weekend's trip to San Francisco was filled with return visits to favorite places, like Pizzeria Delfina (now within walking distance of Tommy's house!), Hog Island Oysters (swoon!), Boulette's Larder, Michael Recchiuti, Boulevard, and, of course, Acme Bakery - for the giant bag of bread I mule down here at the end of every visit to make the magic last just a little longer. I always like to try at least one something new though, and this time I set my sights on Dynamo Donuts. I've been hearing about fancy donuts for a while now, and though I've had some good ones in restaurants recently (Norma's at the Parker Palm Springs comes to mind) I haven't had a chance to try these new exotic flavors. There is a place in NYC that does them called Doughnut Plant, and I am sure there are more. (There HAS to be one in LA - if not, somebody needs to get on that quick.)
Dynamo Donuts

Dynamo Donut and Coffee, on 24th in the heart of the Mission serves donuts in flavors like Maple Apple Bacon, Saffron Chocolate, and Banana Dulce de Leche (stuffed with both.) Their flavors change frequently, and there's no real website to speak of, but Fridays and Sundays are ALWAYS Maple Apple Bacon donut day, so if you're looking for those (and you should be) those are the best days to go.
Dynamo Donuts

This past Sunday they had eight flavors: the aforementioned three, plus Rose Chocolate, Spiced Chocolate, Vanilla Bean, Ginger Orange Twist, and Rosemary Chocolate Almond. I selected six to try - all but the Rose Chocolate and Rosemary flavors.
Dynamo Donuts

Since Dynamo is a walk up stand, we ducked into Taqueria San Francisco just down the street and ordered up a couple of Mission burritos and quesadillas to share with our donuts and coffee. It was quite a feast.
Chicken Mission Burrito at Taqueria San Francisco in the Mission

Mission Feast - Dynamo Donuts and Burritos

Of the donuts, the raised glazed were by far my favorite - especially the Maple Apple Bacon. Speckled with pieces of good fresh bacon and covered with a not too sweet glaze, it's sweet with a savory-salty kick - my very favorite kind of breakfast. The Vanilla Bean is the closest thing you'll find to a standard glazed donut, but much, much better, and the most appealing looking one did not disappoint either - well-browned, sugar-coated and stuffed with sliced bananas and dulce de leche. The Saffron Chocolate surprised me a bit with it's lovely balance of flavors, and the Orange Ginger was perfectly acceptable as well. The only one I didn't finish was the Spiced Chocolate, which was curiously bland. Maybe it was an off day for that batch.
Dynamo Donuts

I would definitely rate this place as well worth the trip from just about anywhere that doesn't require getting on a plane, and maybe even then if you really like donuts!

Read what David Lebovitz, Shuna, and Joy had to say about them.

Dynamo Donuts
2760 24th Street
San Francisco
apparently there are plans afoot for a lovely inside area, with copper fixtures and a patio, so stay tuned for that!

update 9.29.09: the indoor area is now open! Also, be sure to stop in at Humphry Slocombe if you're in the neighborhood - on Harrison at 24th for some awesome artisan ice cream. The Secret Breakfast is delicious!