Dinner at Publican

Our Chicago hosts for the week, having recently moved to the area themselves, asked me to recommend a place for dinner that would accommodate their varied tastes, which ranged from the adventurous to the not-at-all adventurous. I recommended Publican, the newest addition to chef Paul Kahan’s empire which also includes Blackbird and Avec. The atmosphere was causal and communal, the food was served family style, and the beverage list was extensive, designed to pair well with the menu.

We arrived just after the bar opened, but the place filled up quickly – Publican is a very popular spot – and we found ourselves joined at one of the long tables (seen above) by other diners, who both offered advice and asked about what we had ordered. Nik, our friend’s college-aged son seated next to me, declared that he was wiling to try anything we ordered. His father, seated on his other side, asked “Are you sure about that? You do realize who will be doing most of the ordering?” as he pointed to me. OK boy, let’s see what you’re made of, I thought, and so the ordering began.

Nik led off with an oyster sampler that disappeared before I had a chance to take a photo. I followed with the charcuterie plate: pork pie, salami, head cheese, sweet coppa, morteau sausage, pickles, and mustards.

Up next was the taste of three hams: a Spanish serrano, a Virginia country ham, and a La Quercia ham from Iowa.

He Who Will Not Be Ignored ordered the spicy pork rinds, which he declared to be “the best cheese puffs ever”:

Nik took a liking to the potted rilletes served with plots and sourdough toast. In fact, he claimed the plate as his own once the rest of us had a taste.

I upped the ante with the fried veal brains (even He Who tried them)…

… and Nik followed with the grilled duck hearts.

Our last “small plate” was the grilled head-on shrimp with corn, polenta, and Calabrian chills. Nik opted not to suck out the shrimp heads.

Before the “large plates” (these terms are all relative) arrived, I ordered a palate cleanser of radishes with butter and salt, a French country classic.

With the culinary dare portion of the meal concluded (Nik matched me, but I didn’t order the blood sausage), we moved on to simpler grilled fare. First up was the chicken with summer sausage:

Because He Who can never get enough smoked pork, we had the ham chop “in hay” with peaches and pecans.

And finally , the dry-aged sirloin with cucumbers, feta, lemon, and onions – the same flavor profile as a gyro sandwich.

Somehow, we managed to eat almost all of that food:

Grilling food may seem simple, but it takes quite a bit of skill to do well, and the cooks at Publican clearly have the grill skills to pay the bills. The food, combined with the atmosphere and an exceptional wait staff, convinced me that I’d eat at Publican every week if I lived in Chicago.

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