Anker is yet another compelling evolution of the Publican brand | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

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Anker is yet another compelling evolution of the Publican brand

The latest offshoot of the Publican is like the others in that it’s unlike the others.

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There's an arresting dish served at Publican Anker, the latest offshoot of One Off Hospitality's surging Publican brand, located in the Wicker Park crotch. It's a Viking cauldron of swampy-looking green broth bobbing with perfectly cooked mussels, clams, and hake chunks, mounted atop a leather trivet. On the occasion I ordered it, it arrived with no bowls, no spoons, and no ladle, and until we wrangled our server, we were forced to contend with it caveman style, since the forks and small plates dealt out to handle almost everything else on the menu were useless.

It was an uncommon service oversight for a One Off concern, but at least it made for a commanding presence at the table. It's one of a few showstoppers at this new satellite, which evolved from Paul Kahan's original Publican model of beer, oysters, and pork to one more focused on fish, vegetables, and wine. The oysters and beer are still there, as is a bit of pork, but they're subsumed under a tide of surf and turf—in the more literal sense of sustainable organisms like shellfish and mackerel—and an abundant array of plant life.

The space is the old Francesca's Forno, a lucrative corner that One Off partner Terry Alexander has held on to since the mid-90s, when it was Soul Kitchen. In lieu of the mothership's warm lighting and convivial layout, Anker's tone is muted, with a battleship-gray paint job and angular floor plan, while the crowd's volume, which falls and rises to the tin ceiling in tandem with the sound system, is more in keeping with the original location.

There are other familiarities. A quorum of manbunned and topknotted servers repeatedly shuttles the famous pork rinds and the slender, pale-golden frites from the kitchen's pickup window, which offers a glimpse of the wood-burning grill and coal oven. The Slagel Farms roasted half chicken is there (minus the summer sausage), and the oysters too—but only two varieties, now with the option to slurp them raw, or grilled and topped with yuzu butter.

The aforementioned green chile fish stew has an antecedent on the Publican's menu too, but any chile heat is subsumed in the savory, murky broth, camouflaged by a shower of fresh cilantro. That herb shows up again and again on these plates, enough that—along with the abundant garnishes of chopped mint, spikes of acidic lime, and occasional bass notes of fish-sauce funk—makes me suspect menu brainstorming occurred during marathon sessions at Aroy Thai or Rainbow Cuisine. The menu, however, actually name-checks a number of Middle Eastern ingredients, which is more in line with the moment, culinarily speaking.

Nowhere are both of these features more evident than with the chicken wings, showered with basil, with a sticky, vaguely fishy, sweet-chile lacquer, or the meaty chunks of grilled pork collar with raisiny Urfa biber chile pepper and the Middle Eastern spice blend dukkah. You can discern hints of it too in the whole grilled dorade, a meaty, white-fleshed fish, whose crispy skin is pasted with a kind of Aleppo chile jam that has its own piscine essence. This beast is meant to be pulled apart at the table, seasoned with more cilantro and lime juice, and ingested on leaves of Bibb lettuce or whole-wheat naan, the latter which requires immediate attention before it stiffens to a crackerlike rigidity.

In many respects the seafood is as substantial and hearty as any land-based protein. Muscular swordfish meat is piped into a casing and served as an aquatic cassoulet, with fresh shelled beans, grilled romaine, and clams, and the profile of a salty seafood salad's delicate shrimp, scallops, and squid is deepened with smoked trout.

But while an escarole heart salad with a bacon vinaigrette and chicken gizzards (and a stray liver here and there) won't offer much contrast in that regard, many of the other vegetable dishes do, among them an orange salad with charred onions, nutty farro, and delicate shavings of Ubriaco Rosso Piave, lent a fruitiness from the wine the cheese is soaked in prior to aging. Eggplant is battered and fried as lightly as air, tangling with similarly fried halloumi, while strips of charred cucumber are tossed with pumpkin seeds and a restrained interpretation of the usually spicy Yemeni pesto zhoug. Any potential complaints about a lack of assertiveness are quickly forgotten when it's eaten with cool whipped ricotta and thick slabs of Publican Quality Meats' grilled sourdough.

The one outlier on Anker's menu—one touted to the extreme in the preopening hyperventilation—is a burger, smashed thin with hints of lacy edges, topped with caramelized onions, American cheese, and a lightly spicy riff on McDonald's special sauce. It's a decent burger, but it's there to appease the gustatorily timid, those with no appetite for the many more interesting and worthy items.

Speaking of which, the dessert menu includes a magnetic interpretation of the classic British banoffee pie, a spongy toffee pudding doused in butterscotch and showered with banana slices and crushed pecan. But don't let it strong-arm you past the tangy blood-orange Creamsicle ice cream.

Publican Anker seems less laser-focused on beer than its progenitor. There are dozens of red and white wines to choose from (including a few magnums), a relatively truncated cocktail menu (wouldn't want to show up the nearby Violet Hour, a fellow One Off spot), and 15 beers on draft ranging from the exotic (a Brazilian sour wild ale brewed from graviola fruit) to the self-consciously mundane (Schlitz).

After the Violet Hour, Big Star, and Dove's Luncheonette, Publican Anker is only the latest One Off incarnation to further the colonization of Wicker Park's most recognized and well-traveled block. The affinities with the Publican are obvious, but it's enough of its own entity to warrant a name and identity all its own.   v

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