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The Publican

The Publican is a restaurant that’s very now: no part of the animal goes to waste, and while the emphasis is on pork, produce and seafood from name-checked farms and bodies of water get near equal billing. It’s raucous, busting at the seams, and yet it’s completely un-New York in ways that I imagine The Breslin being even though I haven’t been there yet.

For one, reservations are taken. Fuddy duddy? I don’t mind the label. We did have to wait at 9pm on a Friday, but not more than ten minutes and we had a freestanding two-tiered table to ourselves, no jostling or jockeying for attention. Our beer order was taken and brought to us on a tray.

The publican interior

The neutral-toned room with two communal tables long enough to house a good 40 diners, gives off a modern beer hall (emphasis is on beer rather than cocktails or wine) vibe but with a bare wood, minimal ethos that is more mid-century Scandinavian than Bavarian. A huge amount of space is left unused, the individual tables for two (like we had) were not close to touching their neighbors and the booths along the far side had swinging doors so that once seated, patrons were in a private box with four walls.

The service was reassuringly Midwestern. When James asked about two seafood dishes, one was described as being “Like a Friday night fish fry” as if that were a universal frame of reference. I am only aware of such a regional meal-events from magazines like Saveur and Jane and Michael Stern. You may as well say, “Tuesday night cheese wonton fry,” a tradition I would like to see instated.

The publican charcuterie plate

The charcuterie plate made me very happy, certainly the pink gingham plate helped. Pork pie, head cheese, terrine and morteau sausage (which I didn’t realize was that rare in the US until I started looking into its origins). Two mustards, both grainy, were served on the side as well as a raisin-heavy chutney. Picked carrots, cornichons and caper berries added tartness and crunch.

The publican little gem salad

The obligatory non-meat dish, a Little Gem salad, was far from vegetarian, of course. Fried pig’s ears made a nice crouton substitute with the romaine and radish coated in a buttermilk dressing.

The publican frites with organic eggs

We’d ordered the frites topped with eggs to go along with our mains so we nibbled at first waiting. An intangible amount of time passed and I started wondering if our food wouldn’t come unless we finished our fried potatoes. I didn’t want to fill up on a whole pile of fries, good as they were. We then let them sit, hoping our fish and beef heart would show up quicker.

Our affable server, who reminded me of a more substantial Peter Krause, distracted us by bringing over three small glasses of beer (I couldn’t even begin to remember the names) lining them up in order of strength and letting us do a tasting. It worked. I wasn’t in any particular hurry and the fact that a lull in courses was acknowledged and apologized for made a big difference. Waiting thirty minutes between starters and mains would’ve made me insane in NYC but that also would’ve likely been due to a cumulative effect, a series of annoyances with slowness being the final insult. Being tipsy does help temper a wait.

The publican beef heart

I was stuffed by the time my beef heart arrived. I wasn’t sure how I had pictured it, but this was better, lighter, the meat itself, rich, minerally and chewy without toughness and elevated into a meal by peppery vinaigrette, dried cherries and bulgur. I ended up taking home about 75% of the dish, though.

Leftover beef heart in nature's fridge

Despite a hotel room with no fridge, nature’s cooler did its work and froze my beef heart solid after a night on our balcony. And yes, I ate the cold, ice-shellacked leftovers for breakfast.

The biggest boon was really the bill. I’m not one who claims that New York dining is wildly expensive. There is tons of value to be had here, and compared to many parts of the world, ok, mostly in Europe, it’s a bargain. But $110 including tax and tip for dinner for two with drinks at a relative hot spot? Beer instead of wine will do that, we didn’t have a dessert, but there was a skate wing that I didn’t mention outright. My main dish was only $9, reflecting what beef heart truly costs. I could easily see the same dish selling for $17 here, maybe $14 in Brooklyn.

It’s Saturday night as I’m typing this, starving, thinking of a good restaurant nearby. I would go to Brooklyn’s version of The Publican in a (beef) heartbeat, but it doesn’t exist.

The Publican * 845 W. Fulton Market, Chicago, IL

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