I love my job. Not only is it challenging & rewarding, but I get to work from home about 85% of the time. The other 15% of the time I spend visiting customers across the Central US. Most of my travel has me flying / driving in one day and returning home the next day. Even though I often travel alone, I am not the type of person to sit around in the a hotel room. I love to explore the city I am visiting, especially the restaurants and sporting events that city has to offer. Although I could never live there, my favorite city to visit is without a doubt Chicago.
To me, Cleveland is a lot like Chicago. Both cities are on a Great Lake, both have crappy weather, both have great restaurants, bars, museums, sports teams, & theater districts, & the population in both cities is made up of mostly long time mid-westerners who hold similar values. Chicago just has more of everything than Cleveland does, namely jobs & downtown life. On the flip side they have way to much traffic, much higher cost of living, & higher taxes.
It had been about 15 months since I'd been to Chicago but that finally changed yesterday. I had to present at a conference this morning in Chicago and even though I had some final prep work to do last night I was looking forward to a great dinner all day. I was torn on where to go so I asked my Twitter & Facebook audiences where they thought I should go. I was already leaning towards James Beard winner Paul Kahan's latest restaurant, The Publican, and once The Iron Chef told me The Publican was right up my alley, my mind was made up. Paul Kahan, one of Michael Symon's good chef friends, is creating quite the dynasty in Chicago.
Simply put, my experience at The Publican was amazing. The Publican is a fairly casual restaurant, self described as a European beer hall that focuses on their great beer list and farmhouse fare to go with it. The menu features high quality ingredients and it lists all the farms that the food comes from. Pig is definitely the predominate ingredient on the menu, from snout to tail, along with pristine oysters and fish.
I started with an order of the house made pork rinds. My waiter told me it's a 36 hour process to make these. They get the skin from a local farm, wash it, cure it, and deep fry them before tossing them in cheddar powder & a chili pepper I could not understand the name of. They were unlike any pork rinds I've ever had. Nice & crunchy, yet they melt in your mouth and there was just enough seasoning to enhance the flavor. Delicious!
While I was snacking on these the bartender brought me my first beer. I am typically a huge hop head and drink only IPA's, but I could tell my waiter / bartender new the large beer list in & out so I told him what I liked & what I planned to eat and asked him to pick something for me. He brought me a sample of Aecht Schlenkerla Fastenbier, a German smoked lager. I was a little skeptical having never tried a "smoked" beer but he was spot on. The beer was very well balanced and the smoke was very subtle. It was the perfect beer to go with my pork fest.
For my entree I ordered Bollito Misto, which translates to Italian Boiled Dinner. Served in a small, very hot cast iron pan, it was a mixture of cotechino sausage, pork belly, pork confit, and smoked turkey with cippolini onions, carrots, celery, potatoes, and turnips all in a delicious sauce of pork stock, butter, citrus, capers, parsley, and who knows what else. I ate every last drop of this complex dish, even using my bread to mop up the last of the sauce. This was one of the best dishes I've ever had. Any where. I can still taste it more than 24 hours later.
I also ordered a side of the pickled veggies which included cauliflower, green beans, onions, and bread & butter pickles. These were also very good, although not on the same level I enjoyed at the Culinary Vegetable Institute March Earth to Table dinner - photo thanks to Stuart Spivack.
I closed out my dinner with Kyle’s After Pork, a house made digestif composed of artichoke liquer, rum, lime, & mint. This was the perfect end to a hearty, rich meal. It will be very tough for me not to rush back to The Publican next time I am in Chicago.
845 West Fulton Market
After my presentation I stopped by my one of my favorite Chicago restaurants, Frontera Grill, for lunch. Frontera does not take reservations and there has been a wait for a table every time I've ever been there even though they've been around for 23 years! Fortunately I've never had a problem getting a seat at the bar.
Frontera Grill is owned by another James Beard winner, Rick Bayless. Believe it or not, according to Wikipedia Rick's culinary career began in Cleveland in 1980 at Lopez. Bayless is regarded as one of the best, if not the best, Mexican chefs in the country. His menu changes monthly and he only serves authentic Mexican dishes, this is not your typical Tex-Mex restaurant! Rick is also a firm believer in the Earth to Table movement and lists many ingredient sources on his menu.
My lunch was perfect, as usual. I had a couple of the small plates, plus chips & salsa and a house made Limonada. My favorite was the Sopes Ranceros, crispy corn masa boats with savory shredded beef, roasted tomatoes, avocado and homemade fresh cheese.
Before heading to the airport I walked next door to Bayless's latest venture, XOCO, which is slang for little sister. This small space, described as a "quick-service cafe," offers Mexican street food and snacks. Even though you order from a counter, there was a 20-30 minute wait for a table and they only allow take out after 3pm. Fortunately all I was after was their fresh, house made churros (Mexican doughnuts) and they sell desserts to go all day. $3 got me three churros that were still hot and covered in sugar. I haven't eaten many churros but I can't imagine them getting much better than these.
Next time you are in Chicago, I highly recommend making a stop at one of Rick Bayless's restaurants in addition to The Publican.
445 North Clark Street
449 North Clark Street