Last Friday we basically had dinner with Rick Bayless… OK, maybe it wasn’t exactly dinner with him, but if we ignore the table of three sitting beside us, pushed our table right next to his, and then pretended that he actually knew who we were… one might stretch to say we had dinner with Chicago’s ultimate celebrity chef. We figured the excitement from his Top Chef Masters win may have died downed so we secured an evening reservation at arguably the most famous Mexican restaurant in the country, Topolobampo.
The restaurant is a separate dining area decorated with large Mexican paintings and connected to his more casual restaurant Frontera Grill. Rick Bayless, the chef/owner has become famous for his use of regional Mexican flavors, highlighting the sophistication and complexity of a cuisine that is best known for its late night burritos as big as your head. Now, as a regular diner in Chicago’s version of Gudalajara, Mexico, Pilsen, I must say I was a little skeptical how well Chef Bayless’ contempory interpretation of regional Mexican fare would compare with the more rustic family versions I’ve had at Nuevo Leon or Abuelo’s in Pilsen.
Topolo has two dining options: a la carte and the tasting menu. We elected to create our own tasting menu and figured that between the four of us, we should be able to sample a few different dishes. I must say the tasting menu did look intriguing with 3 options: A Mole Tasting, A Celebration Menu, and a Jalisco tasting.
We started our meal with a ceviche trio: Ceviche Fronterizo, Ceviche Yucateco, and Ceviche de Atun. The Fronterizo was the concensus winner of the trio. It was a more traditional ceviche with lime juice serving as the primary acid that marinated blue marlin, olives, jicama and cilantro. The jicama provided a nice crunchy textural balance to the marlin. The Yucateco was probably the second most popular ceviche. It featured shirmp and calamari with lime and orange juice as the marinate with a little habenero for heat. The flavors were well balanced and the calamari provided unique element to the dish. Last, but in this case the least, was the Atun in which ahi tuna served as the primary protein with a red chile apricot salsa. Unfortunately, this dish was just too sweet for us and had a hint of smokiness that just did not work for our palates.
Huitlacoche (Corn Fungus)
Our entremeses included the Conejo Almedrado which utilized a roasted rack of rabbit as its protein. The sauce was delicious. It was a delightful blend of almonds, cinnamon, cloves, and number of other spices. The rabbit was a little gamey for some at our table and probably in our mind could have been substituted with any other protein as long as the sauce was still there. The last small plate we tried was the Taco de Huitlacoche in a light tomato sauce. The huitlacoche is regarded as the truffle of Mexico and is supposed to be the star of the dish. While the “truffle” was enjoyable, the tomato sauce elicited a “this tastes kind of like… a spaghetti sauce?” comment from our table. I don’t know if it was because it was late, but it just did not have enough depth of flavor for us and paled in comparison to the sauce on the other plate.
Pork Tenderloin and Mole
We tried two platillos fuertes. The Puerco Clemole was basically pork tenderloin served with an amazing mole of dark dried chiles, pecans, pinenuts, and hazelnuts. This was not your traditional chocolate based mole seen in most Mexican restaurants. Served along side the mole was a Calabaza en tacha (raw-sugar pumpkin) bread pudding which complemented
the mole perfectly. I knew this dish was a hit when I saw my finacee, who is very skeptical of “gourmet” food in general, scooping up the mole and eating it by itself with a corn torilla. The last dish we ate was the Pollo Ahogada which is a rock hen in a tomato arbol chile sauce. The main draw to this dish was its alleged heat. It was advertised to be the spiciest dish on the menu with aggressive use of arbol chiles. While the hen was cooked perfectly, the sauce had striking resemblance to the previous tomato sauce that we had earlier in our meal. The arbol chiles were fairly tame and failed to draw even a single bead of sweat to my forehead as most spicy dishes typically do.
Our last course was Plantanos de Crema with a vanilla sour cream layer cake with golden ripe plantains and banana ice cream. This dish was outstanding!
So the key question still stands… Does Topolobambo live up to the hype?
Our answer is both yes and no. The authenicity of the food certainly is indisputable. Dining at Topolobambo is a true educational tour of regional Mexican cuisine. The menu and the well informed wait staff serve as your tour guide through the various flavors in each region. In addition to the passion Chef Bayless exudes for Mexican cuisine, we have to also applaud his commitment to local ingredients and producers. Topolo has succeeded in making regional Mexican cuisine more accessible to the general population. However, our experience was certainly mixed as some flavors were quite enjoyable, while others… just didn’t meet our expectations. The overall inconsistency of our meals was somewhat disappointing, especially considering the steep prices of the platillos fuertes. And although gourmet Mexican food is interesting… maybe we just prefer the low-key family joints in Pilsen.
Topolobampo | 445 N Clark Street Chicago, IL 60610 | 312-661-1434