Thursday, January 22, 2009

My Kind of Pub

This past weekend found me in tropical Chicago (it seems I spend a lot of time in the windy city in the winter, when the weather couldn't be nastier), and tops on my list of food places to visit was the new restaurant by Paul Kahan's team: The Publican. For those not familiar with the Windy City's food scene, Paul Kahan is the chef/owner of cutting edge restaurants Avec and Blackbird. The Publican, once again in the West Loop neighborhood, has both similarities and differences with Kahan's other restaurants. It focuses on artisanal beers and even more artisanal foods (especially all things swine), but is in a massive space larger than Avec and Blackbird combined. The Publican has a postmodern beer hall vibe, a spartan barn with hipster servers, minimalist food and the most erudite beer list known to man. And this could pose a problem if everything wasn't handled so well. The beer list could have proven indecipherable, and this from someone who drinks too much artisanal beer, if not for the beer steward who literally camped out at our table to provide recommendations and suggestions. He introduced us to an exceptional Schwarzbier from Monchshof in Germany as well as a Charles Wells Bombardier, a darker ale from the UK. The food at The Publican is prepared with the same "farm to table" focus as Avec, the wonderful Mediterranean influenced small plates restaurant on Randolph St.. The food at The Publican is designed to be shared and is offered with the same "grazing" philosophy as many small plates restaurants (ie. food comes out as it's ready in the kitchen, rather than in courses). As someone who loves this manner of eating (I think it makes for a more relaxed and casual experience) it's perfect, but it's not for everyone so you may not want to take your rigid, old-school Aunt Tess. I would go back simply to have the steamed mussels, which happen to be some of the best I've ever had, and farm-raised chicken over frites, wonderfully simply and hearty. If you find yourself in Chicago soon, wrap that scarf tight and trudge over to 837 W. Fulton Market, the good people at The Publican will certainly offer you respite and more than a few remedies for what "ales" you.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

A Smorgasbord for Believers

Like most other food people I know, I don't like buffet-style eating in restaurants. Among family and friends in the comfort of someone's home is fine, in fact it often gives the party a rustic, family-style quality, but not at restaurants. A buffet at a restaurant always reminds me of the scary, chain-restaurant salad bars of my Western Michigan upbringing (the 'sneeze guard' alone would cause me to lose my appetite). Yet on a recent trip to New York at the nouvelle-Swedish restaurant Aquavit I not only found my ideal restaurant buffet, but what is clearly my desired way to enjoy a Sunday brunch.

Instead of the standard weekend "eggs benedict focused" brunch buffet, Aquavit offers an elaborate, creative Smorgasbord spread. For those not familiar with a Swedish Smorgasbord it is typically a multi-coursed buffet dinner that starts with herring and cheese; then moves to cured and smoked meats and salmon; onto meatballs with lingonberry, venison and gratin potatoes; and concludes with a variety of sweets. I first experienced a classic smorgasbord via a good friend with Swedish ancestry. The thing that appealed to me most about the occasion, even more than the delicious and varied foods, was the gathering of good friends and family at the darkest and coldest time of year (about half the calendar year in Scandinavia). Add a healthy amount of Glogg (mulled wine), Carlsberg Beer and Aquavit (a distilled spirit often flavored with caraway or dill); and you'll understand how those Swedes get their reputation for partying. If you find yourself in New York City on a Sunday morning over the next several months I highly recommend succumbing to this wonderful wintertime tradition.

Aquavit 65 East 55th Street (Btwn. Park and Madison Ave.)

Here's a great recipe for gravlox (cured salmon):

Makes 2-3# of Gravlox

Salmon or A. Char Fillet, Skin-on 5 #
Brown Sugar 5 Cups
Kosher Salt 10 Cups
Fennel, Sliced Thin (Bulb + Fronds) 3
Parsley, Minced ½ Cup
Tarragon, Minced (optional) ¼ Cup
Coriander Seed 2/3 Cup
Fennel Seed 2/3 Cup
White Pepper 2 ½ Teaspoons
Lemon Zest 4 Lemons
Orange Zest 3 Oranges
Lime Zest 5 Limes

Preparation Procedure-

Combine fish cure in a large bowl. Cover fish on both sides with cure, make sure to use it all, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 24 hours. After 24 hours, drain off liquid that has collected in pan and cure for additional 12 to 24 hours (12 hours for arctic char fillet, 24 for thick salmon fillet). Rinse off cure, pat fish dry with paper towel and refrigerate until ready to slice. Extra cured fish freezes well, wrap thoroughly in plastic wrap and place in zip-lock bag.