Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: I’m happy to finally be writing about The Publican, one of the first restaurants I learned was something special when I started getting into the Chicago food scene. It was where I celebrated with family and friends right after my culinary school graduation, and it also happened to be this month’s pick for the “brunch club” organized among several of my friends. I hadn’t been back for brunch in years, so I was excited to try the Saturday menu.
Whenever I recommend The Publican to anyone, I always add that they have to order the pork rinds. To be honest, I never thought I’d have a favorite pork rind, but anyone who’s tried The Publican’s version knows they’re like none other. The first bite is the loudest, most satisfying snap-crackle-pop you can imagine, and then the spicy, porky flavor just melts away in your mouth. The rinds are dusted with cheddar, malt vinegar, and espelette pepper powder, a bright orange combination that you’d notice was getting all over your hands if you weren’t so absorbed in all the crunching. Chicago magazine made a great step-by-step video of how Chef Brian Huston puts them together.
I’d heard the french toast was not to be missed, and the fact that it involved fleeting summer peaches made it an even easier sell. The custard-soaked bread was creamy on the inside and deeply caramelized on the outside, with more toasty aromas from the grilled peaches (I would have loved even more slices) and an especially nutty, seedy granola. Even after adding syrup, the slathering of mellow ricotta kept the dish from being overly sweet.
The Smokin’ Mary was another hit – I really loved the smoky depth of the stout and chipotle mix, and the white whiskey by Evanston-based Few Spirits is always a no-brainer in cocktails. Simple garnishes and a pilsner sidecar made it a balanced, manageable Mary.
Why it’s another 2013 Best Bite: Much like Lula yesterday, Longman & Eagle is another neighborhood favorite that inevitably made the list again this year. Any brioche french toast that involves strawberry, pistachio, and granola is already a winner, but there was one last ingredient that took it to a totally new place: foie gras frosting (yes, you read that right). Adding subtle balance to an otherwise sweet dish, this silky, umami-boosted buttercream would have won over even foie-squeamish eaters.
Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: South Loop brunch favorite Eleven City Diner recently opened a second location in Lincoln Park, complete with an old-fashioned soda fountain and other charming touches. With so many promising savory options (bagels and lox! Latkes! Egg dishes galore!), I even surprised myself when I went with the signature french toast instead. But now it’s hard for me imagine ordering anything else because it was just. That. Good. The fresh-baked challah is the star, striking that elusive french-toast balance of a crispy, golden crust outside and a super-soft inside without being the least bit soggy or overly eggy. Fresh strawberries and bananas with a dusting of powdered sugar always make an excellent topping, but it was the extra crunch of the toasted coconut that brought the dish to another magical level. It was too much toast to finish on the spot, but the challah held up well as leftovers.
Each day in December, I’m celebrating my best bites (and sips) in 2012, posted in chronological order.
Why it’s a Best Bite: I feel very fortunate that Lula is the closest restaurant to my apartment, and that I have enjoyed so many wonderful dishes there in the past year. I chose to highlight this french toast because it exemplifies what I can always expect from brunch (or any other meal) there: the season’s best sustainable ingredients prepared with consistent, exacting technique. The brioche took on more of a bread pudding consistency, crunchy on top and custard-soaked inside, which made the chantilly cream on top all the more decadent. With cranberry jam for acidity, pumpkin seed granola for crunch, and of course, the bed of sweet pumpkin underneath the toast, this dish screamed fall in the best way.
The details: Lula Cafe, 2537 N Kedzie Ave., Chicago.