I was recently in the Windy City for a quick trip and decided to visit the Publican, a “gastro-pub” style venue by Chef Paul Kahn. Chef Kahn is already well established as an innovative chef in the Chicago restaurant scene, and having dined at another Kahn restaurant, Avec, I knew I wouldn’t leave hungry.
First, let’s discuss what defines a gastro-pub. The term came out of traditional pubs in England that with the culinary revolution in Britain began serving food worthy of the incredible beers offered at these local establishments. The food was approachable, used quality ingredients, and was affordable. As the economy fell, the popularity of this high quality pub food rose as an alternative way to get a great meal at a good price, with a great beer thrown into the mix. The gastro-pubs were local spots, in every neighborhood that also helped foster a sense of community and gathering. It is not simply “pub food”, or British food, but an elevated concept that combines community and a sense of sharing with great food and beverages. Doesn’t sound too bad to me! Maybe world peace is next.
Walking into the Publican I had a sense of a local bar feel. It was very laid back and comfortable inside, with long communal tables, an open kitchen, and an open stand up bar area for those who just wanted to pop in for a quick drink and a delicious snack. Pig Art was hanging on the walls, very simple but fun pictures. None of them made me feel guilty for the pork I knew I was about to indulge in!
The beer menu is unbelievable, with Belgian styles dominating the extensive offerings. The beer list included: beers on tap, trappist, abbey style, lambics, Flemish red/bruin, method champenoise, microbrews, saisons, and biere de garde categories from many countries. There is even an option to buy a six-pack of cans for the kitchen, now that is a tip! I opted for a Great Lakes Brewing Company beer, called “Rye of the Tiger” (ok, I love the 80’s and the name was just as intriguing as the flavor description!). We started off with a dish of grilled ramps (wild spring onions) served with a smoky Spanish Romesco sauce topped with perfectly toasted Marcona almonds.
The smoky Romesco was the perfect foil for the charred, grilled mild ramps. Marcona almonds are from Spain and have a rich, nutty flavor that is like almonds on steroids – if you haven’t tried them, track some down and check them out, they are addictive. We also sampled fresh fried spicy pork rinds (from my home state of Iowa, no less), which were a culinary revelation (compared to the Styrofoam commercial bagged versions I’d sampled in the past and never loved).
The server delivered the rinds hot and sprinkled with a spicy seasoning and the comment “the best Cheetos® you’ll ever eat”. They beat Cheetos® hands down and made me wish for a big screen TV, a comfy sofa, and a football game to watch while munching! A dish that takes you to a memory like that cannot be bad! Both dishes were an amazing pairing with the crisp, slightly hoppy beer.
We also sampled the charcuterie plate, arranged with various house cured meats, sausages, pork pies (ah, very Brit inspired!) served with whole grain mustard, pickles, and a delicious cherry-fig preserve.
The plate was good, especially for a pig-lover like me, but the duck galantine was over-the-top amazing! It was composed of duck breast, country forcemeat, and foie gras, rolled and cooked, then sliced thinly. It was the dish of the evening that was granted “a moment of silence” in my book for an homage to the hard-to-find, perfectly balanced, delicious dishes that impress me. All the foie gras haters in the world (of which I have never been a member!) should try this dish before giving it up forever. Please!
Gastro pubs are popping up all over the United States. It will be an adventure to see how they evolve next – and when the term “gastro-pub” is understood and the concept loved by all, my job will be done. Looks like I have some work ahead of me!