From left: blood oranges and herbed goat cheese at Province; The Publican’s beer hall chic; boudin noir at The Publican


The Skinny

2152 N. Damen Ave.; 773-862-5555
Model meal Scotch olives, duck fat fries, steamed mussels, chocolate sabayon
Tip Go early if you want to hear your companions.
Hours Dinner nightly
Tab (without wine, tax, or tip) $30 to $35

161 N. Jefferson St.; 312-669-9900
Model meal Smoked sable seviche, braised lamb, pear tartlet
Tip Takes reservations; a glass-size carafe of the house red Spanish garnacha for just $6 is surprisingly good. 
Hours Dinner Monday-Saturday
Tab $30 to $40

837 W. Fulton Market; 312-733-9555
Model meal Smoked fish, pig’s foot terrine, boudin noir, waffle
Tip Sunday only: a four-course $45 family-style dinner that might include a half split lamb’s tongue with salsa rojo, sweet peppers, and fingerling potatoes 
Hours Dinner nightly
$40 to $50

After two years of endless foodie infatuation and anticipation, I figured THE PUBLICAN could not possibly live up to the hype. Yes, it could. The place finally opened and it’s so damned good, I don’t begrudge the team behind it—chef Brian Huston, restaurateurs Terry Alexander, Paul Kahan, Donnie Madia, and Eduard Seitan—a single minute of the time and tinkering it took.

At first blush, this big, bold Warehouse District spot seems daring for the times but, in fact, the owners may have lucked into smart recession dining. Similar to what Mario Batali and David Chang are doing in New York, The Publican is hugely about pork and offal and simplicity in cooking—and beer. Makes sense for a place that looks like The Beer Hall at the End of the Universe. Starkly outfitted in shades of beige and brown softened by globe lighting and lustrous woods, the room is dominated by three vast communal tables. There are also bar-height rounds for stand-up grazing as well as booths with swinging double doors along one wall. The booths afford some privacy but, for a party vibe, the communal tables are a blast.

The names of the boutique farms supplying the kitchen weigh down the one-page daily menu, and the sprawling beer sheet boasts more than 80 small-producer brews, heavy on the Belgians. It’s a lot to take in. (Note the good selection of offbeat wines, too.) As a prelude to pig, the menu opens with six kinds of excellent oysters, which cry out for a stout to wash them down. Fortunately a bottle of North Coast Old #38 was on hand. You’re also apt to find luscious prawn sausage with royal trumpet mushrooms and artichokes, or warm smoked fish, perhaps a combo of trout, mackerel, and eel with apples and sourdough spread with fromage blanc. Crisp lagers are perfect with fish, and I enjoyed mine with a German Weihenstephan Original Helles Lager from the world’s oldest brewery.

Seafood and beer are fine, but Kahan and his crew could have named the place The Piglican. Every Friday at least one whole pig arrives from Becker Lane Organic Farm (Dyersville, Iowa) and promptly gets turned into all sorts of delicious porcine specialties: rich pig’s foot terrine, the lightest pork rinds I have ever tasted, lardon-laced pork pie, earthy boudin noir (blood sausage), grilled country ribs, cotechino (sliced sausage)—and who knows what else would appear if I went a few more times. Accompaniments change, too—gribiche and radish with pig’s foot terrine on one visit and white beets and watercress another time. And there’s mischief afoot when pig ears turn up as crispy thin slices on top of a lovely basil and fennel salad with buttermilk-muscatel vinaigrette.

Beef plays a lesser role at The Publican but there’s not a thing wrong with the crispy sweetbread “schnitzel,” the rustic tripe gratin with duck egg, or the first-rate steak tartare. All come with fine boutique farm vegetable garnishes, but it’s smart to include a veggie side such as slow-cooked Tuscan kale from Growing Power, the urban farm in Grant Park—now, that’s local—with pancetta. Desserts aren’t a big deal here, either, except for the unbelievably light Belgian waffle with huckleberries and hazelnut butter. What better way to end a meal flowing with Belgian beer?

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THE BRISTOL feels like a cozy Bucktown storefront version of The Publican. It’s got communal tables, the same locavore attitude toward meat and produce, and a nice selection of craft beer to accompany a snack or full meal. And, also like The Publican, The Bristol butchers whole animals in-house. (That means offal and charcuterie are regulars on menu and roast chicken might show up with foot and claw attached.) Comparatively speaking, though, it’s a very modest enterprise, with brushed aluminum chairs, brown banquettes, tree-themed original artwork, and a chalkboard for daily specials.

Chris Pandel, The Bristol’s executive chef and co-owner, has an impressive résumé. He’s a former chef for Cenitare Restaurants (Tramonto’s Steak House, among others) and a two-year vet of Tru. Pandel describes his style as “Mediterranean in the Midwest,” which seems right once you dig into his relish plate of beets with bottarga (salted fish roe), potted salmon, and beer cheese.            

Good news: The Bristol won’t à la carte you to the poorhouse. Except for an occasional whole roasted fish, everything hovers under $20 and most small plates are well under $10. More good news: The Bristol’s bartender, Steve Carrow, makes the best Sazerac in Chicago. Before he fashions the famous old New Orleans cocktail from Maker’s Mark and bitters, Carrow swirls the glass with Pernod absinthe. This is one great drink to sip while munching snacks such as duck fat fries or smoked Cheddar/dried apricot fritters with scallion mustard sauce. It’s also hard to pass up the Scotch olives, big fried sausage–stuffed Spanish or Italian olives with lemon crème fraîche dipping sauce—a clever twist on Scotch eggs—before moving on to addictive fried chicken wings stuffed with chorizo and served over blue cheese cream.

Four head-on grilled prawns with a blast of anchovy butter make a sumptuous entrée—or another terrific snack if you are inclined to share. Same goes for the mussels steamed in white ale flavored with orange and guanciale (pork cheek bacon). On one visit, my table spotted braised pork belly on the chalkboard. It came rolled in a big circle with squash agrodolce on cavolo nero (cabbage) but it didn’t last long, particularly with a draft Goose Island Matilda Belgian-style ale. An intense and smooth chocolate sabayon with house-made Nutter Butter cookies is the best of the short dessert lineup. Bristol’s owners want a happening neighborhood spot, and the place has won regulars—especially ones who love to sit at communal tables and shout at their friends. The joint is so noisy, my hidden decibel meter whimpered all the way home.

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At PROVINCE, I’m seeing pink and thinking green. The new West Loop hottie’s fuchsia glow inside is outpaced only by chef/owner Randy Zweiban’s environmental awareness. Inside the gold-level LEED certified building that houses the CTA headquarters, Province takes pride in sustainably harvested cork floors, cork and recycled wood tabletops, recycled leather-covered chairs, reclaimed wood shutters, and recycled paper menus on PVC-free clipboards. Visually, I was most impressed by the photographs of eggplant and tomatillo and the white petrified manzanilla tree sculpture suspended upside-down from the ceiling, but not so much by the shadow-inducing light fixtures above the tight banquettes.

It follows that Randy Zweiban glories in organic and biodynamic sources for food and beverages. Also logical, given his ten years at Nacional 27, Zweiban’s comfortable American cuisine draws inspiration from Spain and Latin America. You can have some fun, keep the green faith, and enjoy some Latino influence right off the bat with an excellent martini of Death’s Door vodka or gin, made with naturally grown ingredients in Wisconsin and served with a blue-cheese-and-chorizo-stuffed olive. Go for it with little $3 bites of Cuban pork bocadillo or winter squash taquito—perfect cocktail nibbles—while you ponder the rest of the menu.

I have to say it: The menu has too many categories. Raw, small, big, bigger, vegetables, more. But among all those labels and sizes are plenty of shareable plates full of variety and charm. The house-smoked sable seviche with the sweet-tart flavors of Hawaiian papaya and Spanish olives in a citrusy juice tasted so deeply of smoked sable that I wished I had a bagel handy. Then there was the shredded gala apple salad with candied olives and toasted almonds, a mound of crunchy virtue, while the Spanish blue cheese fondue with smoked onions brought sublime gooeyness dunked with herbed crisps. And Zweiban weaves sweet shrimp into Anson Mills organic grits enriched with manchego cheese for a Spanish tweak of a southern standby.

Zweiban moves into more savory territory with a ten-hour-braised fork-tender lamb on a bed of braised eggplant and chorizo with corn bread, and he masters fish such as a seared striped bass over sautéed chanterelles with preserved lemon vinaigrette—bright and delicious. Rotisserie organic chicken delivered good basic flavor, but suffered from dryness. A little more of the mole verde would have helped. I liked the spiced lemon sour cream pound cake, although the frozen lemon yogurt went off the tartness chart; the delicate pear tartlet with vanilla ice cream and a drizzle of vanilla honey made for a gentler finish.

Like The Publican and The Bristol, Province is full of homey, sturdy food prepared with imaginative simplicity—and you can drop in for a half-hour, have a snack, or stay around with friends and share a banquet for not much money. They’re perfect restaurants for these anxious times.

Photography: Anna Knott