Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Publican

The good thing about a blog, unlike a small child or puppy, is that you can neglect it for a month-and-a-half, and when you return it's a little malnourished, but pretty much exactly as you left it. My motivation tank has been on empty lately, but last week's birthday dinner extravaganza brings me out of hiding.

Months ago, before it was even open, I asked Dave to take me to The Publican for my birthday. I use the word "asked" as a synonym for "demanded while holding a gun to his head." He lovingly obliged, and in retrospect, I think that he's glad he did, because we had a really wonderful time.

If you've been living under a rock, or if you're reading from somewhere outside of Chicago, The Publican is the newest restaurant from the masterminds behind Blackbird and Avec, two of the city's dining out meccas. It's a casual place with a mile-long beer list, communal seating, and no acoustics. Plates are easily shared, but The Publican is definitely no tapas restaurant. This is hearty food for people who like to eat. This is a perfect setting for small groups to gather for food, drinks, and very audible merriment. Do you get what I'm saying? The dining room is LOUD. People were having a great time.

The Publican doesn't accept reservations, except on Sunday for their family meal. I was only a little leery given that my birthday fell on a Saturday. We arrived around 8:00 and were told that the wait would be some time over an hour. No problem - we're in it for the long haul. Somehow we managed to squeeze into one of the high top tables standing in the middle of the dining room, acting as the waiting area. We ordered a couple of drinks, and within half an hour, were being squeezed into the huge communal table.

Eating in such close proximity to complete strangers might bother some people, but not me. Sit less than 12 inches away from someone, and one of two things will happen: either you will make friends, or you will ignore each other. To my right, four drunk men were separated from their four prim wives in the style of high school dances; no intermingling of the sexes. They welcomed Dave and I to the table, and gave us welcome menu suggestions throughout the meal.

"This bottle of wine is outstanding, if you're drinking wine."
"The fish stew is okay, but it's really salty."

Instant friends.

We were invisible to the party of four that sat on my left. They were completely engrossed in their double date, which is completely acceptable.

For our first course, Dave selected a beet salad, as he is prone to do whenever the opportunity arises. Crimson beets were cut into quarters and cooked minimally, so as to retain their crispness. Thin slices of creamy avocado alternated with pink grapefruit segments. The textural awe factor of this simple dish went to 11. A perfect bite included a little taste of all three, where the acidic fruit was tempered by the rich avocado, with a hint of sweetness from the al dente beet. A week later, I cannot fully remember the flavors of the vinaigrette that tied it together, but I do remember clean flavors that didn't detract from the three main components of the place. It was a delicious start.

Next came an enormous ceramic bowl filled with steamed mussels from Maine. While the beet salad was easily handled by two diners, the mussels could have easily served four to six. There were at least thirty bivalves sitting in a bath of deliciously savory steaming liquid. A large crusty baguette came alongside for soaking it up. The mussels were delicious, fresh, and still tasted delicately of their ocean home with hints of bay, celery, and beer. My eyes may have rolled into the back of my head at first taste of the bread and sauce, which was perfectly fragrant and addictive. Dave and I were helpless to stop ourselves, dipping, dipping, dipping, into that bowl of liquid awesome. Before long, we had polished off a loaf of bread easily meant to feed six.

Dinner might have ended then, as we were full of carbohydrates, and no longer hungry in the traditional sense of the word. When we heard the "mmmmmmm"s radiating from our friendly neighbors, our gluttonous sides dominated, and we took their recommendation for grilled country ribs, sourced from a Slagel Family Farm in Forest, IL. A plate arrived with generous cuts of succulent, fork tender pork, caramelized with grill marks. Braised trevico, a bitter lettuce similar to radicchio, and crushed peanuts added crunch. Sweet and sour pickled apples balanced the dish and added a welcome touch of fall.

Again, we might have stopped there, but birthdays are not complete without dessert. If I'm being honest, a great meal, regardless of the day, is not complete without dessert, but perhaps that goes without saying? We finished off with a mixed nut tart. Toasty chunks of pecans, walnuts, and pistachios were held together with thick caramel. A ball of caramel ice cream sat alongside, and was the best component of the dish. Although it was the least exciting part of the meal, I gladly polished it off with a cup of espresso.

So, The Publican. Good service, great atmosphere, excellent food, even if you count the mediocre dessert. I absolutely cannot wait to go back with a larger group. The mussels are a definite go-to dish, but with a constantly changing, seasonal menu, you never know what you're in store for. It made for a very memorable birthday celebration, and one of the most fun nights I've had with Dave.

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