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Review: The Publican

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Oct 31, 2008 3:30PM

2008 was already shaping up locally as a banner year for new restaurant openings. L2O was recently named the best new restaurant in America by Esquire, with Takashi and Mercat a la Planxa also making the list. Bill Kim left Le Lan to focus on Urban Belly; Graham Elliot Bowles responded to criticism of his eponymous River North outpost by slowly tweaking things until he got it right. Ryan Poli came back to town with Perennial. Superstar chefs such as Marcus Samuelsson and Terrance Brennan targeted Chicago for restaurant locales. And we're still waiting for Lula Café's Pilsen location to open in a bit (with Jason Vincent at the helm).

Amidst all these openings, only L2O has received as much pre-opening hype as The Publican. We at Chicagoist can even shoulder some of that load. The thought of the Blackbird team of Paul Kahan, Donnie Madia, and Eduard Seitan opening (along with The Violet Hour's Terry Alexander) a Belgian-style beer hall with a menu focused on oysters, seafood and pork — speaking with Kahan last week he freely admitted he was "aware of (his) reputation around town as the 'pork guy'" — has had local dining fans salivating. And that was even before the Publican's opening fell nearly two years behind schedule. In the near-month since it opened, we've made up for lost time. Is the Publican worth the wait?

Um, yeah.

The Publican is the antithesis of Blackbird and avec. Everything about it, from the interior design to the food, is humble and simple. Fitting, given the Publican takes its name from the Biblical parable where God judges a man proud of his virtue as being beneath a tax collector ashamed of his sins. Where the minimalist design of Blackbird allows the focus to shift to the food, at the Publican the high energy level is evident from the moment you enter. Two L-shaped communal tables surround a couple of high tops, with a series of enclosed booths to the side and a burnished copper bar that allows room for sitting. The sheer size of the room and setup of the tables encourages interaction.

While the Publican may have Kahan's and Madia's reputations behind the marquee, the kitchen is on lockdown with Brian Huston at the helm. Huston's menu is a dizzying array of oysters, sausages and charcuterie that could possibly redefine how pub grub is considered in Chicago. The much talked about boudin blanc (which we first sampled at a Green City Market harvest dinner at Goose Island Clybourn), has only improved since our first sampling. Huston's made seasonal tweaks to the dish itself, replacing grilled cherries with grilled grapes and, last week, quince. The Publican's charcuterie plate ($19), a sampling of testa, game bird terrine and morteau sausage served with pickles, capers and both spicy grain and tarragon mustards, is rich with textures and teeming in flavor.

The beer list is large, with close to 70 selections, but not as varied as those of Hopleaf or Map Room. Again, simplicity is the staple here. Goose Island did a test run of their upcoming Juliet during the opening weekend, which quickly sold out. Go to drafts at the Publican are Surly's Coffee Bender porter and the Cidre Bouche Brut E. DuPont, while we were able to enjoy a bottle of Westmalle on an earlier visit. Oenophiles need not fear: the wine list is almost as extensive.

By far our two favorite dishes at the Publican are their pork rinds and pork rillettes. Huston somehow manages to deep-fry the rinds until they're lighter than popcorn, then drizzles them with cider vinegar. The result will make you reconsider buying pork rinds from a grocery store ever again. The rillettes, served cold with grilled red onion, figs and balsamic vinegar, is amazing. We could easily make a meal at the Publican from these two items and a couple of beers. The cost per person is also inexpensive: the individual portions of our tabs from our visits averaged around $55, with tip. We were able to sample a sizable portion of the menu each time.

The Publican, 837 W. Fulton Market, 312-733-9555.