After having visited Alinea the last time I was in Chicago, I knew I had to try one of Paul Kahan's restaurants this time around. Chef Kahan's a compatriot of vaunted Philly chef Marc Vetri, likely rooted from being in the 1999 James Beard Award Best New Chef class. Kahan has a veritable Chicago empire with the lauded Black Bird, Avec, Publican Quality Meats, and of course, the Publican, just to name a few. The fact that other well-established chefs are using PQM meats for their menu speaks volumes; clearly the Kahan family's dedication to quality butchery and charcuterie is on point.
And from the sense I got from how the Pubican's kitchen and the front of the house was run, it's quite similar in style to what I've seen in any Vetri production. Quality service and business acumen from the front of the house. And from the kitchen? Checks and balances with clear focus and constant tasting, mixed with convivial banter and clear passion among the crew.
2014 George T. Stagg Antique Collection [$20]
I actually made my flight back to Philly as late as possible on Friday night so I could fit in this meal. Still, that required me to come in at 5PM, though dinner wouldn't be served until 5:30. But no matter, I was able to enjoy a nice pour of the 2014 Buffalo Trace Antique Collection - Stagg to be exact. FYI - the 2015 collection is already popping up across the nation! This was quite the treat - straight out of the barrel, uncut, and unfiltered. Neat was the way to go, with smooth toffee notes that lent way to an ineffable sweetness, though with an undeniable kick that hits you to the back of your throat from the spice and the barrel-proof strength.
Being seated before dinner service also allowed me to enjoy how seamless both the front of the house and the kitchen prep was. As Vetri's Jeff Benjamin notes, there is a lot involved behind the scenes with respect to service. And much of that starts with proper training. From discussions about the wines on offer or those that should be moved to tasting the dishes that were available that night, everyone was listening, taking notes, tasting. Everyone in the kitchen had a role and a sense of purpose. Yet, no one needed any direction because they were already at that point. Constant tasting.
Madai Snapper Crudo [$18]
Tsukiji Market madai, habazi spice, apple, mint
And with my first taste, I was sold. Snapper from Tsukiji? You can't fault the sourcing. Technique takes care of ensuring the snap and texture of the high-quality fish. But the true star for me? The spot-on seasoning. The salt really opened up the palate while also allowing you to taste the accents to the fish. The herbaceousness of the mint balanced the unoffending undertones of the Shabazzi oil, with the bright tartness of the apple really coming through on the forefront with a bit of acidity. I also appreciated how the Shabazzi coated the tongue - light and clean. Amazing.
I have to say my server / bartender, Benny, was on point as well. In addition to getting me out on time (hate making that request!), he steered me away from ordering more food. Why? Because he knew their beast of a porchetta was a must order for me. And from my kitchen counter seat, can you see what's to come? That's right, the porchetta.
Slagel Family Farm, roasted clams, corn, pea tendrils
The Publican is often described as pork paradise. I can see why. In addition to providing hefty portions of both the wrapped loin and the gorgeously unctuous yet crisped pork belly exterior, the accompanying elements to the dish were clearly carefully thought out. The Korean in me heard the call of bosam. I mean pork and bivalves? Yes, please! The sweet clams also had an innate salinity that accented the notes of sweet corn and hits of salt from the pork. The broth was light when compared to the rest of the dish, but also worked to heighten the heft of the dish especially when the cream sauce melded in. The potatoes were slightly crisp on the outside, but lent way to perfectly roasted innards.
But in the end, it is all about that pork. The loin was moist and meaty. The belly portion? A contrast in crisp and gluttonous textures with everything I love about pork belly coming through. Admittedly, it might be a bit much for some and may be better shared. But for me, there was no sharing. From first bite to last, I knew I had a smile with each forkful. I am still talking about food, right?
How could I possible top the last bite? With the last dregs of BTAC Stagg of course, real deal whiskey sediment included. Happiness.
Butterscotch Pudding [$11]
Vanilla cream, cashew brittle, oatmeal cookies
And for someone who doesn't have much of a sweet tooth, the extreme heft of the porchetta called for some sweetness to balance out the palate. So I went with their butterscotch pudding, which offered light vanilla, which was a nice countervailing element to the nice hits of sweet and salty cashew toffee brittle. The pudding itself was the pure essence of butterscotch, with some levity. The oatmeal cookies had great texture and were incredibly buttery. Milk was needed. But instead ...
For obvious reasons, I opted to try chief mixologist Kyle's "after pork" digestif. Benny was kind enough to comp the easily quaffable concoction, which featured Cynar, dark rum, Chartreuse, and mint. With the rum providing a sweet substantive foundation, the light bitterness from the artichoke and herbal liquers made for a refreshing end to the meal. Very nice.
Not only does the Publican have a strong pork program (that obviously extends to the rest of their menu!), but they also make sure to have high quality drinks and beers on offer. How many places do you know that have BTAC and Van Winkle 12 Year Special Reserve on hand this late in the season? And while the food and drink at the Publican is top notch, it's the service will earn my reco as the spot to go to if you're in need of the former. The front of the house is clearly trained and driven, similar to what you'll find at any Vetri establishment in Philly. Smart and focused, they seamlessly worked as a team. Benny was great, but I didn't have one server. I counted more than 5 people who played a part in making this a great dining experience. That doesn't even include Chef de Cuisine Cosmo Goss, who was calling out orders and approving all plates before they went out for service.
Pro tip: Be sure to check out the takeovers from Vetri's Osteria and the Publican. If you're in Chicago on October 6th, the Publican is the place to be to dine on Vetri classics like chicken liver rigatoni. And for us in Philly, there's nowhere else to be other than at Osteria on 10/13, especially if a trip to Chicago is not in your near future.
To sum it up, how badly was I looking forward to dining at the Publican? Bad enough that I made sure to take the last flight out from Chicago back to Philly. And bad enough that the late night thunderstorms resulted in this latter flight being canceled. And yet in retrospect, I don't think I would've had it any other way. The meal was worth it and I know that the next time I'm back, I'll need to include the Kahan family of restaurants into my itinerary.