Thursday, August 14, 2014

Momofuku Late Night Dinner Series: The Publican at Momofuku Ssam Bar (food)

One of my favorite meals of all time was when Pascal Barbot of L'Astrance did a guest stint at Momofuku Ko some years ago, so I was very excited to try another Momofuku-hosted chef guest stint. Last Tuesday night was the second in Momofuku's late night dinner series, and featured the chef de cuisine and crew of the Publican, the flagship of a mini-empire of restaurants in Chicago with a keen focus on sustainable ingredient sourcing (EDIT: The flagship of the One Off Hospitality Group is actually Blackbird, their fine dining restaurant). Dinner began at 11pm, the first of the two seatings that night (the other one started right after at 1am).

Tables were put together into one long communal table that stretched the distance of the restaurant from the door to the kitchen.

Since this was a unique event, I'll start with my general thoughts on the whole experience. Even though diners sat at one communal table, there wasn't much interaction and people seemed to keep to their own groups. This wasn't like a supper club where you meet and chat with other foodies. Also, it was loud. While this might be the normal decibel level at Momofuku Ssam on a busy night, it was definitely noticeable if you aren't especially used to it. Service was ok, but the whole setup did not seem like something they had taken a lot of time to prepare for. I had some leftovers boxed up, but at the end of the night they had a mix-up and gave me someone else's box instead.

Almost none of that mattered because of how great the food was. My friends who'd been to the Publican had nothing but good things to say about it, and this meal definitely lived up to that hype. While I wouldn't say any of their cooking methods or flavor combinations were very novel, the quality of the ingredients definitely shown through, especially the charcuterie which was mind-blowing at times. Based on this meal, which I guess was quite representative of the food at the Publican, I would highly recommend eating there.

The meal came with extremely well thought out beverage pairings. The sour notes of the lambic were very evident at first, and made perfect sense once the charcuterie plate arrived.

CHARCUTERIE - from Publican Quality Meats, Chicago, Illinois
PQM prosciutto, salam d'al duja, spicy coppa, blood mortadella, pork pie, prune pate, snail boudin, and morteau sausage
I've always liked charcuterie but never craved it, but this whole plate was amazing. A great variety of textures and deep flavors that expanded in the mouth. Literally everything was great, but the one thing that I could just keep on eating was the blood mortadella, while I would have preferred the dough on the pork pie to have been thinner.

Celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Goose Island Beer Company, this beer had an awesome finish and strong aftertaste. It's not for everyone, but I loved it.

HEIRLOOM TOMATOES - from Eckerton Hill Farms, Hamburg, Pennsylvania
Howard's miracle plum, buttermilk, poppy seed, and watercress
The buttermilk and poppy seed combination is one that fans of Momofuku know well. Although I'm personally not enthralled by this combination, it worked well here. The chef made a point to notice the plum, which has an extremely short harvesting season. It was good with the rest of the salad, but I don't eat enough plums to be able to comment on how it compares to others.

SPANISH MACKEREL - from Charleston, South Carolina
Piri piri and chimichurri
I don't recall having had chimichurri with fish before, but it made perfect sense with such a meaty and oily fish. The addition of pine nuts was also nice, and overall this was just a delicious dish, the type that will pretty much satisfy anyone.

SUMMER SQUASH - from Blooming Hill Farm, Monroe, New York
Harissa, feta, fried quinoa, and sunflower seed
This was a nice dish but not as exciting as the other stuff we'd had up to that point. I found the progression of the dishes interesting, because it wasn't a steady move from light to heavy. It was more that many of the dishes were heavy in general, and a salad would be thrown in between heavy dishes to cleanse the palate a bit.

GRILLED SQUID - from F/V Teresa Ann, Monterey Bay, California
Blood sausage, new potato, shishito, and caramelized aioli
Even though I have no problems eating Chinese blood pudding, I don't particularly enjoy morcilla. But the blood sausage here was (I shouldn't have been surprised at this point) amazing. Solid texture and chew without any extraneous fillers or herbs. It was a well composed dish, but to me the blood sausage was the star of the show.

Another tart drink which proved necessary when the final course showed itself.

HAM CHOP "IN HAY" - from Heritage Foods USA, Trimble, Missouri
Corn, cranberry bean, and sorrel
BARBEQUE[sic] CARROTS - from Phillips Farms, Milford, New Jersey
Dill and pecan
Simple, well done, and delicious. From the looks of it, it was unclear how the slabs of pork belly would taste, but as soon as it hit the taste buds, the comforting taste of smoked ham was the first thing that came to mind. The carrots were a good accompaniment, although I would have preferred them less crunchy.

BRAISED CHERRIES - from Red Jacket Orchards, Geneva, New York
Anna's sour cream coffee cake, creme legere
Staying with the overall theme of the menu, the dessert was a simple, yet substantial and delicious cake. The digestif tasted like Chinese herbal medicine, one of those things that you drink only because someone tells you it's good for you. I'm used to it but it certainly wasn't for everyone.

Overall, I would highly recommend trying the next one. I have plenty of faith that the quality of invitees will continue to be stellar, and the food easily made up for the shortcomings in the dining experience that weren't to my liking. At $123 all-in including tax, service, and beverage pairing, it was a very good value even discounting the hour at which we had to eat. There's no guarantee that the next dinner in the series will feature comparable quality and quantity, but I'd be shocked if there was a big drop off.

The Publican
837 W Fulton Market
Chicago, IL 60607

Momofuku Ssam Bar
207 2nd Ave between 13th St & 12th St
Manhattan, NY 10003

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