Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about whether or not I truly exist. It’s mostly because I recently rewatched “The Matrix,” the premise of which is that the human world is a simulation created by sentient machines to distract us from the fact that those machines are farming humans to subsist on our bodies as an energy source. Normally I’d dismiss such a premise as temporary amusement or stoner fodder, but the recent launch of Publican Anker—the newest restaurant from One Off Hospitality Group (Avec, The Violet Hour, Big Star)—has me wondering if I’m actually living in a simulation
According to the movie, a sign of the Matrix is experiencing deja vu, which is explained as a programming glitch made by machines. On the surface, Publican Anker feels like deja vu. It’s an extension of a far-reaching brand that includes Publican Tavern at O’Hare Airport, Publican Quality Meats, PQM at the United Center and, of course, mothership The Publican in West Loop. But the restaurant group’s name is One Off, a nod to the fact that they’re not about creating soulless replicate franchises like TGI Fridays. And yet here we are, five Publicans in. Maybe there’s a glitch in the system?
The experience: I don’t begrudge the One Off crew for building a brand and profiting. They’ve launched so many important first moves in this city—craft cocktails at The Violet Hour, new American sustainable and local food at Blackbird, gourmet tacos at Big Star—that I’d be fine with them buying and running all the local Red Lobsters if they wanted.
At first glance, Publican Anker feels a lot like a bar version of The Publican, complete with globe lantern lighting, good beer and oysters. Maybe the most egregious repeat from the original is communal seating. No one likes communal seating. It violates human nature. I doubt even Bill Clinton, the most extroverted extrovert of all time, is like, “I can’t wait to sit next to total strangers all night while food runners have no idea whether a plate should be delivered to me or the party next to me.”
Throughout the night, I elbowed or was bumped by the people sitting next to me. I didn’t get a chance to taste the marginal pork selection (marginal relative to the original Publican) because the pork collar we ordered was given to the group next to us by mistake. By the time I realized this, we were halfway into dessert and didn’t want the pork anymore. The dudes next to us were so loud that our server couldn’t hear our order and as a result brought us a half-dozen extra oysters instead of splitting the six oysters we ordered between grilled and raw, as requested. That said, you’ll love the loud buzz of the room if you’re kicking off or ending a night of drinking in the Wicker Park area.
The food: Unlike the room, the food, which is focused on seafood and vegetables, is a bigger differentiator. “I’m from California. I joke that I have kale and avocado running through my veins,” executive chef Cosmo Goss said. “People want foie gras or black truffles, but I’m yearning for plums and peaches. The other day I freaked out about these golden turnips.”
Goss’ pull to veggies is apparent and best represented by a plate of fried eggplant ($11) with “Wisconsin halloumi,” a wink and nod description of what turns out to be straight-up cheese curds. The eggplant and cheese are crusted in Parmesan tempura batter, which adds a crystalline salty lightness. They eat like fluffy savory doughnuts dripping with chili-spiked honey. Beets ($12), on the other hand, are a little more pedestrian. They’re cooked well, and I appreciate that instead of being paired with tired goat cheese, they’re spiked with dill and sour cream. My only critiques: The salad on top is slightly bitter and not particularly bright, and the dish would be better as a smaller portion with a bit more acidity. I almost single-handedly polished off a plate of chicken wings ($12) spiked with honey, burnt chili and fish sauce served with a cooling yogurt dip. The crust was crackling, and the swirl of sweet, spicy and funky flavors addictive.
Publican devotees will be happy to know that Anker also has an abundance of oysters. The East Coast Aunt Dottys on offer the night I visited had a supreme natural salinity, so much so that I was convinced they’d been salted by the kitchen. They were not. The Anker kitchen offers them raw with lemon ($3.50 each) or grilled with yuzu koshu butter ($4 each). Mackerel ($15) cured in sugar, salt and sour beer had a lilting note of smoke. Piled on crispy grilled bread and slathered with thick tzatziki and crunchy radish salad, the combo transported me to the Mediterranean. The only bit of seafood that didn’t wow me was a flat green chili fish stew ($29). The mussels were mushy, the maitake mushrooms were soggy, and while I was looking for a punchy garlicky broth that would stave off the winter chill, it never came.
One advantage of being in the Publican family is that the Anker crew has access to the excellent encased meat options from Publican Quality Meats, including a transcendent blood sausage ($13). Instead of thick gamey blood custard like the French do it, the PQM link is a satisfying 50-50 blend of pork meat and blood. In size, it’s more comparable to a breakfast link than a thick wurst, which is texturally more appetizing.
Of course, there’s also a burger ($11.50). Despite the fact that my eyes rolled into the back of my head over another fancy pub burger, I ordered it. Thank the lord. Swaddled in a pillowy brioche bun, the custom ground Slagel Family Farm beef layered with mushroom powder and something Goss calls “Ten Thousand Island” dressing featuring a touch of dashi, this thing was an umami bomb. Each bite made me want another. I couldn’t stop until it was gone.
The drinks: The beer list is deep and left me desirous. I especially loved the Baba schwarzbier ($7), a black lager featuring notes of coffee and chocolate from Salt Lake City’s Uinta Brewing. Menu notes about wine, written by Nico Osteria wine director Bret Heiar, are approachable and sometimes hilarious. I ordered the Melon de Bourgogne ($9) from Muscadet, France, solely because it was described as tasting “like being saved by Liam Neeson.” I don’t know what that means, but the melon notes were fantastic and paired well with the oysters.