Bar Eats: The Publican

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[Photograph: Josh Conley]

It's all about the pork at The Publican. While Paul Kahan's place features just as much seafood, there's no hanging artwork of an oversized fish on the walls (I'm just saying). The interior is dominated by designer Thomas Schlesser's nod to 16th century banquet dining—a massive L-shaped communal dining table. But you also have the option of sitting in booths with table-height swinging doors, or at various 2- and 4-tops scattered about. Of course you can sit at the bar, or stand at the cocktail tables just behind the bar, or sit outside in the summer. You have options.

The bar is decent-sized, and beer director Michael McAvena keeps it lively with a Belgo-centric bottle list to pair with the food. While the menu does change daily, due to availability of locally sourced products, I feel like you can't really go too wrong in any direction.

The taste of 3 hams ($21) is a great way to begin. Not the stuff of the old ham 'n cheese sammich, these handsome debutantes have had nary the misfortune to even learn of such plebian things as white bread or American cheese. The Benton Country ham is a slow-cured, coddled ham that is graced with a modest dose of hickory smoke. It is pure silkiness in texture, and one you could just pick at all day. La Quercia Rossa is a mild prosciutto hailing from an organic family farm in Iowa. It is less silky than the first and lacks the gentle smokiness, but is every bit as approachable. The Serrano, straight from Spain, is another dry-cured ham. The saltiest of the bunch, its velvety texture offsets this to a degree that may cause serious brain to artery confusion.

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The only word to describe the spicy pork rinds ($5) is crackly. Okay, there are some other words, sure, but crackly is just fun to say. Crackly. Pork rinds are not something I generally go for, but when you're in the porcine palace of The Publican, it just seems like the thing to do. Obviously not your 7-11 pork skins, they arrive like an ear of corn fresh off the grill, all pop and crackle. Painted with an orange Cajun spice blend, they are salt and savory forward, with just a hint of sweetness about half-way through. There's really no graceful way to eat these fist-sized monsters; best to just close your eyes and dive in.

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The little gem salad ($10) reminds me of that scene in Casino with De Niro and the blueberry muffins, when he goes in and tells the chef he wants an equal number of blueberries put into each muffin. AN EQUAL NUMBER OF BLUEBERRIES. Seriously, when was the last time you had a salad that had the perfect amount of dressing in each bite? It's always too much, or not enough, or just on the side due to a fundamental lack of trust. But the painstaking attention paid to each leaf is why I'm writing two paragraphs about a salad.

This is probably the best salad I've had in my life. But for more reasons than just the application of the outstanding buttermilk vinaigrette dressing. It's also the sum of its parts, which are individually exquisite. The lettuce is crisp and unchopped. The radishes give it some bite, and the pig ears add a great, salty crunch. There's just enough black pepper to notice. There's also fennel, and, well, I would eat fennel off a Trans-Siberian railway station bathroom floor, so there's that. Vegetarians, go sans ears, and I think you will still be just as happy.

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The Cajun boudin ($17) is a pork sausage encased with dirty rice and chicken livers, then emulsified. It is then plated with marinated kale, apple slices, mustard crème fraiche, and red onion. There is a lot going on in this dish, but I have to start with the kale. I know it's a superfood, but I still have this negative association with it as the stuff of garnishes. Or worse yet, the leafy stuff that decorated the salad bar as a kid. But this dish has shown me what kale can actually aspire to. It is tender and savory, and I swear there is some lime coming through. The rest of the dish is good—the apples are appropriately tart and the onions provide a nice bite. The sausage is rich, full-bodied, and extremely fresh-tasting; it reminded me of a gussied-up, less-greasy chorizo.

Fresh is the key at The Publican. Though obviously not true, it tastes as though everything was butchered that morning at Publican Quality Meats across the street. A self-labeled café/butcher shop/market with a general store feel, PQM peddles everything from bone marrow to fresh ramps to preserved tomatoes. Stop in afterwards and pick up some pimiento dip and house-made jerky, or what I like to call dessert.

The Publican

837 West Fulton Market, Chicago, IL 60607 (map)
312-733-9555
thepublicanrestaurant.com

Josh Conley is single-handedly trying to re-introduce the verb beget into the everyday lexicon. He traveled to Easter Island one Christmas out of sheer irony. He excises a hefty syntax, and shamelessly promotes the color orange. His wife begat him two small children that he regularly belittles HERE.


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