KEY: ★★★★ Extraordinary; ★★★ Excellent; ★★ Very Good; ★ Good; Zero: Poor
Updated: May 6, 2013 8:44PM
The late Sun-Times dining critic Pat Bruno reviewed Publican on Nov. 14, 2008.
Tired of the same old culinary grind? Tired of looking at menus that sing the same old song over and over? Does the house salad bore you to tears?
The newly opened Publican in the Fulton Street Market District could be just the cure for what ails you. This exciting new restaurant’s culinary architects — Paul Kahan, Donnie Madia, Terry Alexander, Eduard Seitan and Brian Huston — have constructed a menu that is a thrill a minute.
The geographical data provided with each dish read like a Fodor’s travel guide for food. I counted no fewer than 30 different cities in the United States (not to mention Europe and beyond) from where Publican scores its menu items: country ham from Tennessee; boudin blanc from Dyersville, Ind.; country ribs from the town of Forest in central Illinois; oysters from points east (Rhode Island and Virginia) and west (California, Washington); smoked trout from Idaho; sardines from Monterey Bay. The bread and butter come from Websterville, Vt. And the beer choices occupy a menu of their own.
Is there a certain culinary style to the Publican? Not that I can put my finger on. But it does have panache and more than a bit of derring-do, from the terrific selection of oysters to the well-thought-out choices for fish and meat and the classy charcuterie. And then there is the fine idea of “Sunday dinner at the Publican” (more about that later).
Oysters got things off to a good start one night. The choices — eight in all — gave rise to some serious decision-making. From Humboldt Bay, Calif., kumamoto, which are bold, big, sweet, buttery. From the East Coast, sting ray, smaller shell, briny, firm. Fresher than fresh, the oysters were served on an oval platter layered with crushed ice, along with a cup of mignonette sauce.
Smoked trout from Clear Springs, Iowa, was next up. The smoky (but not overbearing) fillet, nicely portioned for two to share, got dressed up with a classy romesco sauce, along with sorrel and chips of ham, all of which added more luster to the trout.
On to the meat of the matter and the “ham chop cooked in hay.” This chop goes through a brining process before the smoking-in-hay process, which added a marvelous and complex flavor to what ultimately became cured pork. Thick slabs of the ham (and some of the bone) were on a bed of lentils and earthy, meaty oyster mushrooms. Essentially, the dish had but three ingredients, but wow! It was magic.
The good food just kept coming. The meaty, perfectly grilled farm chicken (Swan Creek Farm, North Adams, Mich.) rode on a logjam of outstanding frites. Alongside the pieces of chicken were big, thick rounds of house-made summer sausage. Great dish.
On this particular night, we finished with two desserts. One was wonderful; one needs some work. The wonderful was the light and airy waffle adorned with slivers of figs and a lavish honey butter. Work is needed on the apple tatin. The apples were mushy, and the “tatin” part suffered from a serious lack of taste. The knob of Chinese mustard ice cream with the tatin was interesting, though.
A word about price. You can run up a serious tab at the Publican, unless you split dishes. The chicken, for example, would be a sharable entree. So would the ham chop. If you dig too far and too deep without sharing , you will be looking at a hefty tab.
Sunday dinner at the Publican is a fixed-menu, one-price-per-person ($45), four-courses arrangement. The courses may vary a bit from week to week, and you share each course, except for dessert (you each get your own).
Bagna cauda got things going in a very nice way, but not in the traditional manner as it would in the Piedmont region of Italy (there is no warm sauce for dipping the vegetables in the Publican version). Here the artichokes, broccoli and cauliflower, each on its own (in other words, not jumbled together) got a proper roasting (nicely crunchy, not mushy), and all were dressed up with a sauce made from anchovies, garlic and olive oil. A tang of lemon zest and walnuts added even more character to this classic dish.
Next up was whole grilled fish. Daurade (also called bream) has a gentle flavor, flaky white, quite delicious. The fish came with a scattering of diced celery and orange, which gave the fish a pleasing flavor boost, and a side dish of poached whole carrots and parsnips. All very nice, but in Europe, I have had this fish with escarole and black olives, which was even better.
The next course was a well-crafted cassoulet of pork. Great stuff. After I had poked through a raft of beans, the dish eventually gave up its chunks of pork sausages, pork shoulder and pork belly.
Dessert on Sunday? Brandy and date pudding with vanilla ice cream. This beauty made regular bread pudding look like a fool. Moist, a subtle hint of brandy. A smart finisher.