Sunday, October 21, 2012


Owned and operated by renowned, James Beard award winning chef and cookbook author, top chef master, and undisputed Mexican cuisine authority Rick Bayless, Topolobampo (One Michelin star) is the higher-end, more polished counterpart to Frontera Grill, another of chef Bayless' award winning restaurants that shares the same address. Frontera offers a causal dining experience, a slightly more accessible price point and a larger seating capacity in its lively, almost rowdy dining room. Alternatively, Topolobampo provides a more intimate and sophisticated atmosphere while maintaining flavors that remain far from timid. Topolobampo is considered by many to be the most outstanding Mexican restaurant in the United States, praise that has earned chef Bayless the distinction and recognition by the US state department as the country's official ambassador of Mexican cuisine

When you enter the restaurant(s) you must first pass through the Frontera dining room to access Topolobampo where a sliding door reveals a second restaurant with a completely different demeanor. Inside, white table cloths and formally dressed staff are in sharp contrast to the bright colors of the upholstered banquets and vividly painted walls; it's almost like something is telling you "have a party but keep it classy". Our waitress hands us an extensive cocktail list focusing on an impressive selection of tequilas and mescals; as we look it over we're given a complimentary dish of home made tortilla chips and guacamole to snack on. At our waitress' suggestion we chose two seasonal margaritas, one cucumber cilantro the other white peach and basil. We're not normally fans of the margarita, mostly because people insist on serving them tooth-achingly sweet in gaudy glasses full of crushed ice like an alcoholic version of those blue slush drinks from the convenience store - no thanks. These margaritas couldn't be further from that miserable, kitschy, Jimmy Buffet nonsense we've come to despise. Perfectly chilled and shaken table-side, our margaritas were served in martini glasses with a salty kick on the rim that left us yearning for more. They didn't come cheap but quality comes at a price - we'll never look at a margarita the same way again.

Complimentary Guacamole & Tortilla Chips
White Peach/Basil & Cucumber/Cilantro Margaritas - 12.50$/ea

Fairly certain it would be too much food but not willing to compromise, we began our meal with two appetizers and a third meant to be shared. The "Trio, trio, trio" for 2 served with fresh tortilla chips counted two hits and a miss. While this dish wouldn't strike us as being particularly innovative or interesting on any other menu, after taking a moment to consider that having done variations on this dish since the 80's, chef Bayless and this restaurant might have actually been the pioneers of the heavily-plagiarized fish trio in a martini glass trend. We felt left with little other choice but to order it. Take, for instance the Waldorf salad, it's a been-there-done-that sort of menu item, but if you visited the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York, you might be compelled to order it. By trying the original for yourself, you may gain an understanding of what has inspired so many chefs to emulate it. 

From left to right in the photo below, the "Ceviche Fronterizo" made of albacore tuna mixed with fresh chopped tomato, cilantro, green chilis, briny olives and sour lime juice was the least triumphant of the 3. Though the flavor of the ceviche couldn't be faulted, it was the texture of the fish itself as a result of having been cooked only by means of acidulation that we found slightly chewy and a little peculiar.

The second, "Ceviche Yucateco" was more a ceviche in name than method. Squid and blue shrimp are first cooked by lightly steaming them before being tossed with citrus juice, fiery habanero, refreshing cilantro, avocado, and crunchy cucumber and jicama. The seafood was impossibly tender, the texture was palpable, and the seasoning was brilliantly balanced.

The final "Coctel de Atun Tropical" or tropical tuna cocktail was not at all a ceviche, but really more of a parfait. Spectacularly fresh and firm cubes of big-eye tuna was layered with a creamy and tart tomatillo guacamole and sweet mango salsa. The colors provided a presentation as striking as the taste, it was without a doubt our favorite of the three.

"Trio, Trio, Trio" - Ceviche Fronterizo, Ceviche Yucateco, Coctel de Atun Tropical - 19$

The following two appetizers were stunningly presented, and profoundly fulfilling. People seem to have a mistaken tendency to immediately equate chili peppers with heat. Paired with ribbons of cucumber, mint leaves, and a few cubes of a polenta-style tamal made of white cornmeal steamed in a banana leaf, the chili-based rub used to season the sweetbreads in this dish highlighted the smokier, more earthy and subtly sweet end of the spectrum that this misunderstood fruit has to offer. The rub's smoky flavor profile was echoed within the sweetbreads themselves, which had been cooked over hot embers. This dish was deceptively delicate and very elegant, we liked everything about it, save for the tamal which we found to be relatively bland. 

On a heartier note, a quiveringly soft-cooked egg was served in a warm stone bowl over a rustic tomato sauce studded with beans, peas and the unmistakable fragrance and flavor of epazote. A whisper thin slice of charred plantain over top provided crunch and sweetness. Ham was labeled on the menu in the dish's description but it wasn't evident to us, no-matter because we didn't miss it. Objectively speaking, 13$ for a single egg and its accoutrements is a little pricey if you ask us, but being the least expensive item available on the menu it was arguably deceptive in its perceived value. At the end of the day, the price may have provided complaint worthy fodder if the dish disappointed but it didn't - it was fantastic.

"Tamal Colado con Mollejas de Ternera" Sweetbreads, Tamal, Cucumber, Mint - 14.50$
"Huevo Motuleno Topolobampo" Slow-poached Egg, Tomato, Beans, Epazote, Peas, Plantain, Ham - 13$

For our first main, tender lamb leg grilled over a wood-fire and sliced into medallions was paired with a velvety soft and perfectly seasoned black bean purée, steamed tamal, sweet snap peas and a "classic Oaxacan black mole" sauce. As was the case with the sweetbread dish earlier in the meal, the tamal was fairly bland, but here it served as a great medium with which to sop up the black mole, which was really the reason we ordered this dish. Having never tried a mole that we could say with certainty was the real mccoy, we figured short of going to Mexico, this would likely be as close as we could hope to get. Our waitress confirmed this assessment telling us that the mole recipe, containing over 28 different ingredients ranging from chocolate to chiles was handed down to the chef de cuisine by his Mexican grandmother, she upped the ante telling us that even in Mexico we might be hard-pressed to find a more exemplary specimen - challenge accepted. It's flavors were extraordinarily complex, a harmonious mix of salty, sweet, sour, spicy, earthy and bitter notes. We've heard it said that if you can identify any singular ingredient in a true mole that it isn't properly balanced; that description would accurately characterize this mole's flavor. It took each of us several bites to determine whether or not we even liked it, but in the end, our plate wiped clean of every last drop would indicate our favorable resolution. 

"Borrego en Mole Negro" Lamb Leg, Oaxacan Black Mole, Tamal, Black Bean, Snap Peas - 23$

The color contrast and presentation on our second main was astoundingly beautiful. A single orange-glazed scallop with an impossibly hard sear and a superbly cooked interior was served with shrimp and squid colored bright orange from their tolerably hot chile based marinade. The accompanying bold-green escabeche sauce was not characteristic in color but its sour, acidic notes of citrus and vinegar with a round finish were delightful. Another helping of tamal, which was getting redundant but appeared to be the requisite starch in the restaurant was lent a hand by the telltale, vibrant color of achiote but still didn't manage to win us over, going 0/3 perhaps we're just not the tamal type. On the other hand, a creamy smear of "sikil pak" that was labelled on the menu in parentheses as a "pumpkin seed and amaranth hummus" presumably to give diners like us, who are unfamiliar with this component, a point of reference was seriously tasty.

"Mariscos con Sabor a Yucatán" Scallop, Shrimp, Squid, Escabeche, Tamal, Sikil Pak - 23$

For dessert we shared a warm crepe stuffed with a not-too-sweet filling of ripe plantain and bittersweet chocolate topped with toasted coconut. It was served over a puddle of goat's milk caramel known as cajeta that was terrific but lacked the expected tangy distinction we normally associate with products made of goat's milk. Alongside the crepe over a little pile of crunchy whole wheat crumble, was a scoop of creamy, caramelized plantain ice cream topped with a mohawk of toasted meringue that provided more in the way of presentation than flavor. We loved our dessert and best of all felt that the meal seamlessly transitioned from savory to sweet while maintaining a flavor profile consistent with the region Topolobampo champions.

"Crepas con Cajeta, Plàtano y Chocolate" Crepe, Plantain, Chocolate, Goat's Milk Caramel, Whole Wheat Crumble, Meringue, Plantain Ice Cream - 11$

Service was professional and the pace at which our meal progressed at Topolobampo was on point from start to finish, recommendations didn't fail to impress and although menu descriptions are heavy on unfamiliar terms the knowledgeable staff has all the answers. Another thing you'll undoubtedly notice on the menu are a lot of credits given to food producers and provenance, a popular trend in restaurants today but chef Bayless has payed respect to his suppliers and producers since your father was walking to school in paper slippers, up-hill, both ways. Let's just say he did it before it was the "in" thing to do.

When describing food, particularly in writing, "authenticity" is a word we tend to avoid using. It's a cliché term that gets thrown around too haphazardly and as a result, has lost it's impact and authority, like the word "artisinal" for example. But scouring the thesaurus looking for an alternative to describe the eye-opening meal we experienced at Topolobampo, it occurred to us that to use any other word than authentic would be a disservice to a chef and a place that exemplify the term.

There are restaurants under the Bayless umbrella that cater to every budget, from XOCO to Topolobampo and Frontera Grill in between. Most recently, an initiative to bring real food to airport terminals has resulted in Tortas Frontera at Chicago's O'Hare which we tried and enjoyed before flying home to Montreal. Fine dining? No. Best airport food we've had? Yes. With so many options available there's really no excuse to visit Chicago without getting a taste of what chef Bayless has to offer, even if you never leave the airport.

Stay tuned for post 4 in our 6 part series spotlighting the restaurants we visited while in Chicago. Next up: The Purple Pig. Or view our previous Chicago post: Alinea

445 North Clark Street
Chicago, IL

Topolobampo on Urbanspoon

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