Monday, November 16, 2009

Yes We Publican

Two posts into our second life and already this blog is in a rut: yes, I'm going to write about Publican, too—this time about the Allagash beer dinner. Why? Because I want to ruin it for us by telling you how great it is, so that you'll go, and we'll never be able to sit in the Watson Seats again. It happened at 112 Eatery in Minneapolis, you know—though, let's be honest, the entire freaking world already knows about this place.

Actually, we didn't even get to sit in the Watson Seats this time, but we did sit at about the same spot of the bar where we did for the New Holland beer dinner back in August—the fact that I initially wrote "a few weeks ago" instead of "August" gives you a sense of one of the challenges we're up against in writing this blog. Anyway, that had been a crowded affair, with lots of standees and many Friends of the House. We had charming if mildly distracted service from a guy named Paulie, who sealed his place in the Munch Detective pantheon by sneaking us a couple shots of Sortilège, which ought to be sad cliché (it's a mix of maple syrup and whiskey—and indeed, it is Canadian) but capped a night of mesmerizing pairings. Is there a more perfect beer for a snout-to-tail joint like the Publican than New Holland's Charkoota Rye? I think not—though, as the name implies, you have to like smoky flavors. But, friends, Chicagoans, gastronomes, who among us does not?

All right, where was I? Oh yes, at the bar at Publican with Watson, looking enviously at the couple of British spies who had commandeered our favorite seats. What, not spies? Just balding guys with trenchcoats who ate very slowly? OK, fine. Paulie was on the case again tonight, and once again he delivered the goods. It's amazing how a little extra in the pours and a side shot of cider will get a couple to want to come back pretty much every week.

Yes, yes, we're easy marks and we like our beer. And wine. And liquor. But for god's sake, man, what about the food?

First up tonight was a velvet-on-velvet combination of wee Nantucket scallops (remarkably crisp yet not overcooked) and celery-root puree. Pureed with what, you ask? Butter, silly. A couple large truffle shavings were actually superfluous. I never remember in my own cooking to add like to like—you hand me some small, sweet scallops and I start thinking about drowning them in balsamic vinegar—but here the textures created an inimitable mouth-bath of silky richness. The Allagash pairing was the Curieux, and a good thing, too, because due to a comical series of misinterpretations and one startling gesture of bad faith, Watson had poured out a glass of the stuff I'd been drinking just the night before. It's true I was asleep on the couch at the time and had said something profound like "Grrzzflltt" when asked if I was done with my beer, but it just goes to show that you never really know anyone. So the manifestation of a glass of the creamy, saisony stuff (aged in bourbon barrels, doncha know) was even more welcome than it would have been otherwise.

As good as this was, we were knocked back by the followup: squid pizza. Actually, squid-arugula-tapenade pizza. Oh yes, there was guanciale on there, too. Them's hog jowls (snout-to-tail, remember). And then there were some Fresno peppers and lots and lots of salt. I will want this dish on my deathbed, but I hope to have it many more times before then. The peppery Allagash Fluxus stood up to it but was ultimately overwhelmed. I should mention somewhere—here, perhaps—that this dinner was much less crowded than the New Holland one; my theory is that the New Holland guys have a lot of friends in Chicago, whereas no one knows that guy from Portland.

Onward! Paulie draped himself over the back of the chair (no, he's not a cat; it's the easiest way for him to talk to bar patrons) and let us know that he was about 80 days into a periodic 90-day TV fast. "I've read everything in my apartment," he said, "including a book by Leo Buscaglia." He then nabbed two suspiciously full glasses of Interlude, a rich red-purple ale with an intense grapiness, and slid them before us. It was about as plummy as you could imagine a beer to be, and we wondered (a) what could be paired with it and (b) whether Paulie would sink so low as to read Dan Brown. We got an answer to the first question with the arrival of plate of turkey, a meat I do not care for.

And yet... and yet... oh, Publican, we love you so. Here the turkey was done two ways—first as a smoky hamlike slab and then as a, uh, breaded and deep-fried turkey finger? That part didn't enchant me, but the pseudo-ham was topped with little roasted brussels sprouts, slivers of pear, and shavings of actual ham. (A New Yorker writer or Frank Bruni would call this ham on not-ham pairing "witty." I will not.) The denseness of the dish cried out for red wine—or, conveniently, winey beer. As anyone with tastebuds knows, fruit beers can be abominations of sweetness or amiably pointless. Interlude doesn't actually have any fruit in it, which is probably the secret of its success (it's the blend of yeasts and the barreling that do the work), but it provided the same kind of sweetness that a chutney might, in other circumstances.

Paulie, who had by this time taken to calling us his gang, swept our plates away, brought over the beer guy for a chat, slipped us some cider, and announced that he'd served three tours in the military (Somalia, Yugoslavia, and, um, Iraq? We were getting a little hazy by now) and has a bullet still in his leg. Obviously, we were in love.

Dessert arrived and sent us nattering back to childhood—albeit a much fancier and stranger childhood than either of us actually had: chocolate gelato, with salted peanuts, scorched little marshmallows, and a dildonic piece of candied banana. This came with Allagash Black, a smooth, dry stout that slithered across the palate. The only thing that would have made it better would have been two short glasses of the crimson Cantillon kriek that had been poured from the taps in front of us all evening. Why, thank you, Paulie, don't mind if I do. And I take back that crack about fruit beers.

Is there something unseemly about us gorging ourselves into oblivion while being fawned over by a veteran pantomiming friendship? There is. In our defense, we weren't actually gorged, and we totally bought the act, especially in its last scene. We thought the play was over, so we rose to go. Paulie was down the bar, with another couple, whom he turned quickly from to come shake our hands and say, "Let me walk you to the door." Which he did. It was charming, it was a little strange, and we made a reservation for next week's cider dinner on the spot. Whatever it is, it works. And we tipped very well.

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