i've been lusting after eating at a paul kahan joint for who knows how long (actually, i can trace it back 3 or 4 years, when a feature on paul kahan appeared in bon appétit.) he finally opened up his gastropub, publican, mere weeks before our trip. so i made our resos on open table after salivating over the photos and the sample, pre-opening menu posted on the website.
the space is in a nondescript, industrial part of town. the room is one giant rectangle, with a phalanx of globe fixtures occupying 2/3 of the ceiling space. there are some deuces set up along the window and the long side of the room is occupied by 4 top booths, finished with old english style, high, stable-like doors enclosing them. most of the floor space is taken up with a long, continuous, rectangular communal table, with some high, bar tables set up in the negative space in the middle. everything is worn wood and tallow yellows, reminiscent of a stable or a road side drinking house and inn. the only wall decorations are 4 large paintings of fat pigs in all their porcine glory.
the music is distracting - a hodgepodge of random indie hits; and the design of the room is such that there's a near constant cacophony of conversation - there are no soft surfaces to absorb the sound. we were sat a table for two, with high, stiff chairs under which was a shelf where we could rest our menues in between courses.
our server looked like caravaggio (as seen in simon schama's 'the power of art') and instantly drew the dotytron's ire by suggesting the TWO most expensive beers on the extensive beer list as his personal "recommendations." an $18 bottle of some lambic or trappist beer. now, the dotytron is no beer slouch. he may know next to nothing about wine but he's got a fairly adventurous and sensitive beer palate. we've also been to belgium, so he has a fair idea of what those trappist ales cost and he doesn't like the aggressive hard sell. he kind of snapped at the waiter - and by snapped i mean, he interrupted him in the middle of his spiel to say that he had just gotten back from the washroom and needed a minute to decide - which made caravaggio back down to the point where he ignored us for the rest of the evening and we had to resort to jazz hands and arms to flag him down for the bill.
we decided to skip the oyster selections (i can pay $3 CDN [not american!] for a kumomoto at oyster boy, thanks!) and ordered dishes as we felt like eating them.
we started with the hamachi crudo with raw almonds and chilies. this was fantastic. i love me a good crudo...you don't see many of them in toronto. thickish slices of buttery, light hamachi, strewn with green almonds (the hard, herbaceous, green fuzz part was taken off), thai chili julienne, and some light acidity from a judicious touch of lemon. it was very spring-like - buttery and green with a hot, fleeting stab of chili.
next up we had la quercia rossa ham from iowa, served with bread and butter. the ham was very mild, sweet, and velvety, lacking the saline kick of proscuitto. it was delicious, but i was put off by the fact that the restaurant "cheated" and heated the plate that the ham was on, until it was noticeably warm to the touch. i'd rather the ham be at room temperature, than have the unctuousness of the fat artificially boosted by heating the plate.
the next two dishes were my favorites.
duck heart salad. chewy, sautéed duck hearts with mushrooms, and wilted spinach, judiciously dressed with a vinaigrette that was just sharp enough to cut through the dense, woody, warm flavours of the dish. served with a perfectly cooked duck egg on brawny white bread that had been expertly charred to a crisp-chew. this was delicious through and through and definitely something i'm going to attempt to replicate (probably with chicken hearts though.)
lake eerie smelt with artichokes, parm, and tartar sauce. i was fully prepared to be biting through some wee little smelt heads, but the kitchen took care of that for me. the smelts had been gutted and beheaded and dipped in an airy poof of batter to make the lightest, crunchiest, salt-kissed bar snack you've ever tasted. the artichokes were similarly done, but my favorite element of all was the deep fried lemon slices. so good! wafer thin, battered and fried lemon slices that i could have knocked back like oh so many concave pringles. completely addictive and something else that i'm going to be trying at home. the whole crunchy mess of frito misto was piled on a smear of tartar sauce, with shaved parm and a tangle of garnish greens on top. top notch. the kind of dish you want to go back for.
next up was the house-made pork rinds. these were okay. they were coated in a cheese-pepper mixture (similar to the cheese coating on the cheese-flavoured garrett popcorn), but they weren't coated enough. they were okay. like vaguely pork flavoured shrimp chips. they lacked the sweet/savoury characteristics of lard and were a little ho hum...kind of unmemorable.
we followed up the rinds with a giant chunk of seared-in-brown-butter sweetbreads, with a glorious, rich brown crust on the outside giving way to custardy offal goodness inside. it sat atop a spring tangle of ramps and green chickpeas. i've never had a hunk of sweetbread so huge before and lemme tells ya - i could get used to it. this dish was delicious. rib-sticking grub that doesn't make you feel like hell after.
dessert was a bit of a misstep. a teensy tiny portion of 'milk chocolate cremeux' with prunes and lavender shortbread. this was $7. the other desserts (a pear crisp with molasses ice cream that came in a solid 1 c. ramekin, a waffle with rhubarb compote that easily filled a 10" plate) were more substantial. this was tiny! the prunes and the lavender shortbread had no relationship with each other or the cremeux. it was a bit of a miss...i would have rather ordered another option from the main courses, had i but known.
all this, with 2 expensive beers for the dotytron, came to the pauperly sum of $107 USD, including taxes, not including tip. what a deal!
i would definitely go back again - if i lived in chicago this would be my go-to for a neighbourhood/small plates vibe - what jamie kennedy wine bar aspires to be. gently priced for the generous serving sizes, great, comforting, well executed food - it's everything you want a gastropub to be. now i can't wait to try blackbird and avec, next!