When you visit a restaurant that divides its menu into small plates and large plates, that encourages mixing, matching and sharing, do not take your waiter’s advice and let the kitchen schedule the arrival of your food. The ‘advice’ in fact is euphemism for ‘look, the cooks are in the weeds and want to treat your table as their lowest priority.’
And so, on a busy night at Publican, it was. Judging from the constant crowds, the place might do whatever it likes without suffering a consequence, and it would seem that such, in fact, is what it does.
Publican looks striking; it has received a James Beard Foundation Award, prominently displayed, for restaurant design. That makes solid sense if the purpose of the foundation is to reward design that squeezes the last drip of profit from each interior inch.
It feels as though everything here is geared not only to the bottom line but also to the convenience of the restaurant, from the cheerlessly unaccommodating hostess to the service of drinks.
Publican is packed with tables and chairs as well as people. You cannot sit for drinks at the pretty bar before the handpumps; you need a reservation and must eat. Instead that severe hostess touts her ‘standing bar,’ in reality a few round tables dumped into the center of the room. You will be jostled and may spill you drink, but only if you can convince the harried waiter to bring one. These precarious hightops back right into the streets of gently swerving dinner tables; no detachment here, they have connected most of the tables to ram every possible cover into the restaurant.
Along an entire wall, however, lies a rank of roomy ‘booths,’ not booths at all but something better; little snugs that you used to find in Irish bars behind a narrow door, and still find at the Crown Liquor Saloon in Belfast. Publican has fitted each of its snugs with a pair of lovely but wide and impractical doors. They swing out into all the congestion to require a certain vigilance from the overworked staff.
The snugs are the perfect thing to promote conversation, except that all of the hard edges at Publican render that impossible. It is too loud for words. The waiter shouts his greeting, you cannot hear and he wanders off. No more drinks, as yet no talk of food.
When they do bring beer it is better than good. The large selection is well chosen and favors American craft brewers, but during our visit also included something seldom found in the United States, draft Jaipur IPA from the independent Thornbridge brewery in Britain. A number of bars featuring beer have begun to nanny their customers by selling stronger beer in smaller glasses and Publican is one of them. You will get less than the desired pint of Jaipur at a pintly price even though it is not particularly strong at 5.9 percent alcohol.
The best of the beers during our visit was another IPA, Zombie Dust from the eccentric Three Floyds just over the Chicago line in Indiana. This is as good a beer as you will find, not heated with excess alcohol in the west coast style but rather balanced and bright like an English special bitter. They will pour a 16 ounce pint of this one for you at Publican.
During lulls in the barrage we could hear our waiter, who was pleasant enough when recommending the sequence of selections determined by the ‘chef.’ We did not demur but never will accede to the advice again. Four of us ordered a service of the famous housemade pickles with an assortment of charcuterie to start. Our mains for sharing included steak tartare, a bollito misto, ‘boudin blanc’ and duck confit with sides of leek and sprout.
Bread at Publican is extremely good but they do not bring any unless you ask, and in our case ask them several times.
First to arrive, alone, was the boudin with its ‘brown bread and red beans.’ The description is silly; the dish in actuality is an elegant essay on Saturday night supper in New England. The sausage itself is basically weisswurst, and a good one; the brown bread the Yankee kind, of cornmeal and rye, but nothing from a B&M can ever tasted like this; the beans not red at all but rather white and bathed in a smokey pink sauce. This iteration transcended the appealing original to the extent that it was one of the more memorable things the Editor has eaten in some time, although some mustard would have been nice.
This is not in reality something to share, and Publican ought to know as much; it is hard to portion out the presentation and awkward to heft the oversized plate around the table. The steak tartare that followed apace, however, is ideal for sharing and was beyond reproach.
Then, as they say, the bottom fell out. A lengthy interval ensued. The bollito and confit arrived, followed inexcusably by our wine (something passable, no more, but fairly cheap). The boiled course was bland, without the depth that the dish should display, except for its unorthodox inclusion of smoked turkey. The Blackhawks might have swatted it with their sticks; worse than its texture, the puck tasted metallic and off. Confit bore neither trace of taint nor flavor; the shrinkwrapped stuff from D’Artagnan at the supermarket is superior.
Our waiter breezily advised the table that our other dishes would be on their way, but Brussels sprouts and dessert do not usually share our thoughts and we declined. Pickles and charcuterie? He had scribbled the order and disregarded his notes so we declined our starters too.
They insist on filtered coffee from the plunger; not cappuccino, no au lait, no whole milk in the house either; ghastly.
We had harbored high hopes for Publican but our visit had been utterly deflating. It is depressing to contemplate a place that cares so little and reaps so much. We consoled ourselves around the corner at the Aberdeen Tap with pints of Revolution IPA from the northside brewers, and so should you.