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Publican Quality Meats offers great food; seating, service could use a boost

Citrus Salad Three Floyds Zombie Dust beer Publican Quality Meats 825 W. FultMarket st.  | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

Citrus Salad and Three Floyds Zombie Dust beer at Publican Quality Meats, 825 W. Fulton Market st. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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PUBLICAN QUALITY MEATS ★★

825 W. Fulton;
(312) 445-8977;
publicanqualitymeats.com

Hours: 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. Sunday; Lunch Service begins at 11 a.m.

Prices: Soups and salads $5-$22; sandwiches $7.50-$12

Try: Beef meatball sandwich, citrus salad, ribollita soup

In a bite: A purveyor of top quality charcuterie, local farm wares, artisanal products and exceptionally fine lunch fare, all slightly undercut by no-frills service.

KEY: ★★★★ Extraordinary;
★★★ Excellent; ★★ Very Good; ★ Good; Zero stars: Poor

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Most restaurants operate by a set of fairly codified rules enforced by tradition, commerce or the expectations of diners. Publican Quality Meats (PQM), a new butcher/cafe/market in Chicago’s Fulton Market meatpacking district, is not one of those restaurants. Like its sister restaurants Blackbird, Big Star, Avec, the Publican and the Violet Hour (run by chef Paul Kahan and his business partners at One Off Hospitality Group, including Donnie Madia, Terry Alexander and Eduard Seitan) PQM serves some of the best food and drink around. But it does so in its own selfish way, sometimes at the expense of its diners’ comfort.

When Blackbird opened, the tables were too close together, the dining room too stark. When Avec opened, it was too loud, the servers ignored you and sometimes you had to get up in the middle of your meal so later-arriving parties could join you at a communal table. At the Publican, the service was similarly loose and middling. At Big Star, they didn’t take credit cards or reservations for small parties.

Though I experienced and was inconvenienced by all of these things, I adored Kahan like a teen girl crushing on Justin Bieber, and Avec was maybe my favorite restaurant in the city. Ultimately these quirks were minor, relatively small tolls to pay for killer food. At PQM, though, the quirks converge en masse, and the goodwill required to survive and enjoy the experience is seemingly much greater than at those other spots.

First off, there’s the long line out the door during the noontime lunch rush. The PQM staff does its best to ameliorate this. They give you a big blue numbered placard that ensures you’ll score a seat if you’re dining in. This would be a fine system if the order taker at the counter didn’t also try to give me another number, or that I have to pay for and repeat this order to the cashier who then writes down the wrong order number because I have two numbers.

Once I sit, or I should say, as I’m crammed, into the tin of anchovies that is the cafe seating, I wait, and wait, and wait. My long-limbed friend gets leg cramps from a stool that sits too high for the dining table. On another visit when I sit in the back where tall stools are perched across from low chairs, another friend hunches like Quasimodo to make eye contact.

The sometimes 20-minute wait for food would be understandable were it complex Blackbird fare, but in many cases at PQM I order a pre-prepared sandwich or soup. When my order finally arrives, my server tells me that table settings are self-serve. I realize I have to fight my way through two other parties sitting at the other end of the table to get a fork. One member of those parties is so tired of moving for everyone’s needs that she brings me a fork, spoon, napkin and glass of water. Still, I must wait to eat, because on two of three visits, my dining companions’ orders don’t arrive at the same time as mine.

But once you tuck in to the eats, all is forgiven.

“Sarge’s Mom’s” meatball sandwich features luscious beef orbs soaked in a garlicky, deeply savory and spicy tomato “bravas” sauce punctuated by bright bursts of mint and gooey nubs of artisanal queso fresco (Shepherd’s Hope Cheese from Minnesota), all nestled into a thick, buttery Texas toast-like bun. Though it is Spanish-inspired, it puts a Godfather-worthy hit out on any competing Italian meatball sub.

The “Nduja” features rich, spicy, neon orange spreadable salami on airy focaccia foiled by bitter dandelion greens and bright honey wine vinegar-dressed wild onions. The “Tuna Muffaletta” teams with creamy poached tuna, fat hunks of soft-boiled egg, briny green olive and crispy ribbons of shaved Brussels sprouts.

The only sandwich issue I have at PQM is the “Better than a Gyro,” which doesn’t quite live up to its name. I’d take a fresh gyro from Greektown’s Parthenon over this sandwich any day. Still, the shards of tender braised pork belly are quite good. It’s just that their fatty richness, coupled with an overt green flavor from fresh pea shoots, overpowers the promised sharp red onion, orange spice vin, cooling raita and mint (also apparently buried in the sandwich).

The glistening jewellike flecks of segmented orange and grapefruit topping the peppery arugula and buttery gem lettuces in the “citrus salad” do not suffer a similar fate. They burst with sweet-and-sour acidity, complementing a hearty bed of satisfyingly chewy faro (a hearty, brown, ricelike grain) and briny marinated feta cheese.

Every good salad deserves a soup, and PQM’s ribolitta — a hearty restorative broth fortified with bitter Tuscan kale, creamy cannellini beans, rosy and creamy striated flower-like petals of pancetta, plump smoky tomato and thick sourdough croutons — makes a great companion.

Of course, just as I’m being lulled by the food, I realize our dessert — a blondie cookie — has not been delivered and I have to push once again past my communal table cohorts to ask for it. As I do, I glimpse ruddy tomahawk steaks, silky rillettes and a pot of duck confit bathing in a vat of ivory fat. I survey gleaming refrigerated cases filled with local farm milk and restaurant quality stock. There are reams of white anchovies, pristine hunks of custardy boudin blanc and sweet-spiced blood sausages. This luscious charcuterie is some of the best anywhere.

PQM is the quirkiest of the One Off Hospitality restaurants. I’m annoyed by the dessert oversights, the cramped quarters, and I have to bus my own table, sure. But in the end, none of that really matters. Ultimately, I’m cowed by the supreme beauty and foodie plenty of PQM. I suppose it’s akin to dating a petulant supermodel: I’m out of its league, but I’m here. Whatever I need to endure or provide to keep the relationship going, I’m ready to do it.

Michael Nagrant is a local free-lance writer. Follow @michaelnagrant. E-mail the Sun-Times Dining section at diningout@suntimes.com with questions and comments.



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