I’ve been a fan of Frontera Grill for as long as it’s been open. But I’d never tried its more upscale neighbor Topolobampo–I just couldn’t believe it would captivate me in the same way. And the menu is meat-oriented, which can be problematic when traveling with my sister, who is not a carnivore (otherwise she’s the perfect travel companion–she’s lets me do all the restaurant picking!).
On a recent trip to Chicago, we perused the menu and decided to take the plunge. There were plenty of options from which to create an adventurous meal.
Walking to the front desk that services both restaurants, one can’t help but feel sorry for the people keeping track of reservations and waiting lists. The pace is frenetic and the crush of humanity around them must be stressful. We only waited 10 minutes (because we had a reservation, which is a major advantage over Frontera Grill’s policy of only taking them for large parties), but it was enough to witness the skill and tact required to make the operation run smoothly.
Unlike Frontera Grill’s dining room, Topolobampo’s is calm, lovely and filled with flowers. (Also dark, and I didn’t want to ruin the mood by using a flash.) The music is loud, but the patrons are not. Our server did an excellent job of helping us navigate the menu and, before even taking a bite, we marveled at each dish placed before us. Each of the items we ordered had ingredients in the bowl or on the plate, and then the server poured a sauce or broth over to complete the presentation. I’m sure plenty of dishes don’t require that extra touch, but it so happened that the dishes we ordered that night did.
One caveat–the portions are small. We had eaten a big lunch so that was fine with us, and we didn’t order a full dinner. There are several tasting menus offered that are designed to expose diners to the complete array of Chef Rick Bayless’ creations. Most include meat in at least one course so we ordered a la carte.
The server brought a complimentary bowl of guacamole to the table, ingeniously served with slices of cucumber and turnip rather than the ubiquitous tortilla chip.
We started with an item on the Ensaladas and Entradas list, Acamayas y Callos al Guajillo. The description reads as Pan-roasted North Sea langoustine and Baja bay scallops, red guajillo chile broth, velvety Nichols Farm parsnips, butterball potatoes, and roasted knob onions. But just looking at the dish, I wouldn’t have been able to identify all the ingredients had I not known what was in the bowl. The potatoes were diced to tiny, tiny cube size, and the parsnips were pureed and smeared as paint on a palette.
Next up was Pozole de Hongos, Mole Amarillo: Chanterelle and maitake mushroom pozole in Oaxacan yellow mole (guajillo chile, tomatillo, hoja santa), “oozy” quesillo cheese, meaty heirloom hominy, creamy field corn, crunchy popcorn, crispy tostadita. Heirloom hominy tastes nothing like the the typical bag found in the grocery; rather it is soft, and redolent of corn. The quesillo cheese looked like a light colored egg yolk and oozed on puncture, which was amazing to see from a cheese. And the popcorn was a fun touch that added another layer of texture.
We split an entrée called Chilpachole de Mariscos: Maine lobster, wood-grilled octopus, chilpachole (ancho and chipotle, epazote and velvety rich lobster broth), Nichols Farm sunchokes two ways, Bayless Garden mizuna, sunflower “sand.” It was a thing of beauty. And the “sand” was just that–sunflower seeds had been ground and mounded on the plate to resemble sand on a beach. Each bite was a revelation and tasted as fabulous as it looked.
As an example of other items on the menu, meat lovers would undoubtedly love the Carne Asada y Barbacoa en Chichilo: Seared Premier Wagyu ribeye and slow-cooked Crawford Farm lamb barbacoa in chichilo mole (dark chiles, almonds, raisins, tomato, garlic, avocado leaf, spices), corn husk-steamed chipil tamal, pickly vegetables (chayote, green beans, guero chiles), unctuous black beans.
I wasn’t yet ready to stop the hit parade; it was just so fun to watch these amazing dishes come to our table. So we ordered one dessert. “Taza” de Chocolate Oaxaqueno con Manchamanteles was a “cup” of layered frozen chocolate espumas (bittersweet, Oaxacan, turron, bubbly), toasted plantain brioche with cinnamon & sugar…and warm, fruity, chocolatey manchamanteles mole. Mole for dessert? Seems like a no-brainer really, when you consider that one of its key ingredients is chocolate. This was another “pour over” dish and, though it wasn’t my favorite of the night, it was another masterpiece.
It was such a memorable evening that I may never go back to Frontera again…unless I strike out getting a reservation at Topolobampo.