Chicago's Publican Had Me At Smelt Fry

A few weeks ago I went with my husband, who I’ll call Mr. Tasty, to Chicago to celebrate his birthday. I won’t tell you which birthday, but it was a big one, and I don’t mean 30 or 50. In a weekend I’ve mentally edited into a feature film-style montage of eating, drinking, and posing in front of public art beans—Here we are enjoying duck breast Benedict at the Bongo Room! Here’s us draining margaritas at Frontera! Don’t we look cute trying on fedoras at Goorin Brothers?—one meal stands out. If I am in love with Chicago, and I do believe I am, it seduced me under the sepia lights of the Publican. Perhaps readers in Chicago are tired of hearing people gush about the Publican. But for me, it was a perfect Windy City weekend fling. (Not in a pale-faced Fall Out Boy kind of way. More in a wily-haired Wilco kind of way.)

The Publican serves local food, snout-to-tail, and nowhere was that philosophy more literally interpreted than in the first plate to arrive: whole smelt, scooped out of Lake Michigan, breaded and fried, with petals of artichoke, a bit of lemon, parmesan and something way too tasty to call tartar sauce. May I digress about smelt? In Minnesota, smelting is an early spring event, a Wild West-style roundup of the tiny, furtive fish. It could be 2 o’clock in the morning and 40 degrees out, but when you get a phone call— “The smelt are running!”—you grab your waders and a 12-pack, jump on your four-wheeler and ride like hell to the icy river. In a Carhartt-jacketed bacchanalia, you drag a garbage pail into the watery stampede, diverting herds of smelt into your trap. Returning home at dawn with buckets of fresh fish, you reflect on nature’s abundance, on the way the land and the river provide, and wonder if the four-wheeler has shaken up the remaining beers too much to open just yet.

I have no idea if that’s how they get them out of Lake Michigan. I just know they were delicious. We gobbled them up.

The rest of the Publican’s menu is comprised of locally sourced meats, especially pork, and sustainably sourced (but not local) seafood. Oysters are the predominant players on that side of the menu, and the Publican does a brisk business in them. I sat in view of the guy on shucking duty, and shucks if I didn’t watch him send out a trillion of them. If only we could rouse that kind of appetite for zebra mussels, I think the Great Lakes would beat back their invasion. (Until the Asian carp move in and eat all the people out there smelting.)

Publican pork rindsPublican pork rindsOur tour around the pig led us to potted pork rillete with berry jam and grilled artisan bread, which completely changed my mind about spreadable meats; and blood sausage with housemade mustard which changed my mind neither about blood sausage nor mustard. (Those are my own hang-ups. Lee loved it.) We also finished off a plate of yummy lamb meatballs on couscous, and after all of that, we were almost unable to eat dessert. (We persevered, though, through a lovely chocolate tart with a drizzle of maple syrup.) We saved the sweetbreads for another occasion, despite the server’s assurances that this was the freshest, best place to eat them. I have no doubt that was true. The place knows meat, all of it. General Manager Kimberly Phillips and our server Stephanie Scordato were so thoroughly conversant in each menu item's pedigree, we wondered if they were actually the ones leading the humanely tended animals through morning yoga out there on the free range. Of the variety of pig parts on the menu, few were the usual suspects—not a chop nor a tenderloin did we see (though they did offer a flight of hams). The integrity of this whole-animal approach was as much appreciated as its adventurousness. This summer, the Publican will open a butcher shop next door, and I suspect it will be a very different and wonderful kind of meat counter, requiring a brand new edition of my Weber cookbook to include more sections than just ribs, burgers, and birds.

As completely smitten as I was with the Publican, it would be irresponsible not to issue a word of caution to readers. This would be a very, very bad choice for dinner when your vegetarian college roommate comes to visit. Even if she’s that ultra-accommodating type of vegetarian who insists she can always find something to eat. She can’t. She shouldn’t even try. Even the cauliflower with housemade spaetzle, one of the better excuses for a vegetable I’ve had, has ham in it. Bring her to Green Zebra or Karyn’s or something. (Of course, if you are still angry at your vegan sister-in-law for volunteering to bring dessert and showing up with mochi ice cream, this might be a perfect place to settle the score. In that case, order the spicy pork rinds to start, or the salad with ears.) Between the comprehensive selection of pig parts and the shellfish, you might also want to steer your Orthodox Jewish friends in another direction.

But on a night out with your carnivorous friends, go. Go! Go with an empty belly and a brave heart (because perhaps there will be one on the menu). Order a small batch Goose Island beer (which your server will help you choose, because every one of them has achieved Cicerone beer server certification) and make a toast to local agriculture, to the Windy City, to Wilco, to another fantastic smelt run, and maybe, just maybe, to turning 40 in style.

Laura Zimmermann has the best intentions and worst results growing food, but is a smashing success at eating. She lives with her family in south Minneapolis, very, very close to Pumphouse Creamery. Laura is an editor at SGT.