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 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.
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.
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!"
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.
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.)
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.
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.
845 W Fulton Market
(about ten minutes from downtown - just outside the Loop)
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!