When partners Paul Kahan, Donnie Madia, Terry Alexander and Eduard Seitan teamed up to open The Publican in Chicago about four years ago, the original plan was to create an authentic gastro pub. In this case, the best laid plan went awry with positive results.
"We set out to emulate a gastro pub, but when we started to research this concept, we realized that these operations really only exist in London," Madia says. "Instead, we took the influences of our European idea and spun it into an American beer hall with German, French and Belgian influences."
The 4,600-square-foot, 120-seat restaurant anchors the city's growing Fulton Market District. Unlike traditional gastro pubs, the Publican features a diverse menu, with a focus on simple farmhouse fare. The Publican sources ingredients from farms located in the Midwest and across the country, with fresh products arriving daily.
"Many gastro pubs have a small kitchen that concentrates on burgers, but that's not how we do it," says Kahan, who also serves as executive chef. "The menu and food are more involved, as is the beer program. Our goal was to take it to the next level."
To accomplish this, the team eschews typical foodservice protocol. Instead of having such traditional sections as starters, entrees and desserts, the organization of Publican's menu goes from lightest to heaviest dishes in three sections — fish, meat and vegetables.
Dishes constantly rotate, depending upon the ingredients available from the restaurant's farm suppliers. Popular items include grilled pork country ribs with an Asian-inspired marinade of white soy, ginger, garlic, scallions, Chinese mustard and chili paste; Portuguese-inspired chicken with French fries; and fish stew. The Publican also offers between five and 10 oyster varieties daily. A menu staple, the charcuterie plate includes cured meats, housemade sausage, and pickles.
The team focuses as much on the beer selections as the food. "We're noticing now that new restaurants are opening up, not just with impressive wine lists, but also with more thoughtful beer programs," Madia says. "We feel our restaurant has been at the forefront of this trend."
The extensive international beer offering includes 12 beers on tap, a number of varieties from Belgium and the United States, and two house blends. All bartenders, servers and managers have received the first level of beer certification.
By all accounts, the Publican's open kitchen is smaller than average at only about 1,200 square feet. A range in the center and a suite, which five cooks work around, consume a good portion of the kitchen's floor space.
"Quality of the build was top of mind with our equipment," Kahan says. "By investing in these units early on, we find they won't need replacing as often. Plus, equipment that is more functional and meets our needs is treated better by our cooks."
Staff prepare cold items, including oysters and fish, at the front station, which includes flattops with open burners. Preparation of appetizers and entrees occurs at a station on the end. Staff use a grill on the back side of the range to cook meats and occasionally fish. A fry station also is adjacent to the range. In front of the suite resides a 14-foot-by-20-foot prep that includes refrigeration on either side.
"Chef Paul worked with an equipment manufacturer to create three custom pieces of equipment," Madia says. "One of these is a fish fillet station with a cold plate on top that keeps the product chilled while it's being prepared. This includes drawers with air-tight seals to keep temperatures consistent."
The back part of the suite includes a meat station, which works off a 10-foot-long pizza prep table. This includes a door and four drawers, in addition to a refrigerated rail across its length. A flattop in this area has two large drawers that staff can adjust to provide varying temperatures for refrigerating and/or freezing.
"It has great functionality where we can use one drawer for freezing and one for refrigerating or both for freezing or refrigerating," Kahan says. "Right now, we're using both drawers as refrigerators during the day, then switching one drawer to a freezer for prep in the evening."
On the far side of the prep area is an ice cream machine, a double-well sink and shelves for storage. The wood-burning oven is behind a nearby wall. Tall, 15-foot-by-10-foot walk-in coolers are also in this area.
Virtually the entire meat operation has moved to Publican Quality Meats, a 40-seat retail and foodservice operation that opened across the street in early February. "The thought was that we could expand across the street and create a viable financial model that could stand on its own, while also producing meats and breads for the Publican," Kahan says.
The butcher shop's 2,000-square-foot kitchen boasts all new equipment, including a custom 12-foot-by-10-foot table with built-in refrigeration and seating, 15-foot hood above a deep fryer, six-burner range, 24-inch griddle, 36-inch cheese melter, tilt skillet, smoker and convection oven. The kitchen also includes a cooler dedicated to salami curing.
The equipment package supporting the bakery includes a four-deck bread oven, 100-pound spiral mixer, 40-quart mixer, two-door proofer, two-door freezer, large wooden baker's table and custom double-width butcher's table. This kitchen's small dish station includes a ventless dishmachine.
"The butcher shop's menu is completely different from the Publican's and includes creative sandwiches, salads, soups and stews," Kahan says. "Much of the energy goes into producing 15 types of sausage and cured meats."
Back across the street, the Publican's front-of-house décor reflects its menu and includes obvious European influences. Guests enter into a glass-enclosed vestibule with 10-foot-high ceilings. Walls are covered by a textured vinyl paper made popular in tenements back in the 1890s. Brass is used throughout the space, including on the bar top. A rectangular communal walnut table circulates throughout the entire dining room, accommodating more than 100 guests adjacent to one another.
Eight English pub-style cocktail tables are located at the center of this room, and seating extends to four-top walnut banquettes on platforms against a wall. Customers also can sit at a low-boy unit with drawers outside the kitchen to watch the meal preparation.
Madia says the team, which also created the city's notable Blackbird and avec restaurants, likes to push the envelope with its projects. "We are faced with the same challenges as every restaurant, which is providing great service, food and design," Kahan says. "We reinvest in all of our operations and are constantly thinking of ways to make them better."