19 August 2010

Topolobampo, Chicago - Restaurant Review



I find it difficult to get excited about Mexican food. My experiences to date have led me to believe that it's the jackhammer of world cuisines. BANG, there are the onions, BOOM, there's some cumin, BOSH, there's the chilli kick. All big tastes and no subtlety, right? Rice, beans, corn and more beans, a sure-fire way to gastrointestinal distress. Admittedly, my experiences of Mexican food have occurred mainly in Europe, which can hardly lay claim to being the epicentre of Mexican cooking - for many on this side of the pond a Mexican meal consists of an Old El Paso taco kit and maybe some mashed avocados (I still have nightmares about a hastily consumed burrito at the now defunct Earl's Court Taco Bell in London). I suspect that this sort of 'Mexican' food is as unrecognisable to a Mexican as General Tso's chicken would be to a Chinese person. But surely there is more to Mexican food than this Tex-Mex rubbish? After all Mexico has a rich culinary tradition dating back over 21,000 years.

So when I found myself in Chicago recently, I jumped at the chance to have lunch at Rick Bayless's Topolobampo restaurant, which is billed as a 'fine dining' Mexican restaurant. I wanted to find out if my preconceived notions of Mexican food were indeed accurate and whether this cuisine could possess a refinement I had not yet encountered.

Before coming to Chicago I had vaguely heard of Bayless when his name was mentioned as a possible candidate for Executive Chef at The White House. I later found out that Rick Bayless is a legend in his own right and is possibly the greatest champion of authentic Mexican food in the US. His first restaurant, Frontera Grill, opened in Chicago in 1987 and is designed as a casual Mexican eatery. Topolobampo opened on the same site (they share the same front door and bar) two years later and was one of the first to offer high-end Mexican food in the US. Since then the Bayless empire has grown and now includes four restaurants (with two more set to open at O'Hare airport), book deals, TV shows and even his own line of branded food products.

Although located at the same site of the informal Frontera Grill restaurant, Topolobampo retains its own, more upscale style and feels distinctly separate from its next door sibling. The dining room is coloured in bold hues of red and gold, and even though we were here at lunchtime the lighting was subdued and the atmosphere intimate, although it was somewhat spoiled by the slightly cheesy fiesta-style music playing over the sound system.

We were given menus to peruse, accompanied by large glasses of ice water and some guacamole with tortilla chips. The chips were light and very moreish, and the guacamole was fresh with a pleasant, grassy perfume, although I felt it needed the addition of a bit more chilli and maybe some lime (ironic given how I've just complained about Mexican food being all about big flavours). We skipped the margaritas made table-side and opted instead for a watermelon and lime drink which was too sweet for me.
Guacamole and tortilla chips

For starters, Mrs. Nibbler had Coctel de Atún Tropical, which consisted of cubes of tuna sashimi, an avocado and tomatillo guacamole, and a mango and grapefruit salsa. I had to fight to get a bite of this as it was simply divine, bursting with fresh flavours. No single ingredient dominated this dish; it was perfectly balanced and very good indeed.
Coctel de Atún Tropical

I opted to start with Lake Okeechobee frog legs which came with a guajillo chilli-infused polenta-style tamale, shredded snap peas, microgreens, potato crisp and a chipotle-black bean sauce. This was nicely presented and looked very delicate and refined on the plate. The frogs' legs were perfectly cooked, succulent without being too watery. The tamale was soft and creamy with a pleasant, mild chilli bite and the sauce had a deep, smoky flavour to it. The microgreens were peppery and intensely flavoured. This was quite an unusual combination of flavours for me but I really liked this dish and felt it worked well. It was delicious.
Lake Okeechobee frog legs

For her main course, Mrs. Nibbler had Camarones al Mojo "Blanco y Negro", which sounds like something Austin Powers would eat and makes me chuckle childishly every time I say it ("you stole my mojo!"). This course was comprised of grilled gulf shrimp with a black and white mojo of black garlic, white garlic, olive oil, chipotle, and lime. This was served with Swiss chard, puffed quinoa and chives and was to be eaten wrapped in warm corn tortillas. Surprisingly, although not written on the menu nor mentioned by the waiter, this dish also came with grilled scallops. Now I love bivalves, but sadly Mrs. Nibbler doesn't and I'm guessing she wouldn't have ordered this dish if she knew it would feature them so heavily. However, this was actually a good thing for me as it meant I could indulge too. This was a pleasant enough dish but it was nothing special; it just felt too heavy, the presentation was poor, and the mojo tended to overwhelm all other flavours.
Camarones al Mojo "Blanco y Negro"

For my main course I had braised pork shoulder and belly with a blue corn pipián sauce (a sauce based on toasted pumpkin seeds) made with ancho and pasilla chillies. This was served with a white corn purée, black beans, avocado leaves, garlicky braised quelites (a spinach-like leaf), charred baby Iroquois white corn and sweet corn 'air'. I didn't really enjoy this dish at all, it just seemed so busy. The pork was overcooked, and I didn't care for the rough, dry texture of the corn purée. The sweet corn 'air' seemed pretentious, which would be forgivable if it had actually tasted of something. One redeeming factor was the charred baby Iroquois corn from Spence Farm, about 100 miles south of Chicago. This was wonderfully sweet, crisp and juicy. I could have munched on just a bowl of them all day.
Puerco en Pipián de Maiz Azul

On to dessert. At the waiter's recommendation we opted for the chocolate tart, but as we were getting full we decided to share it. Bad idea, as again Mrs. Nibbler and I had to fight over it. It was sensational. Luxurious, silky-smooth, dark Mexican chocolate sat atop a thin layer of soft, gooey cajeta (goat milk caramel). This ensemble was lightly sprinkled with flakes of salt and encased in crumbly pastry. Accompanying this was a scoop of goat cheese ice cream, toasted marshmallows, and graham cracker 'gravel'. Again a menu substitution we were not informed about, but this time it was a minor one as the tart came with plump blackberries instead of the advertised strawberries. The blend of flavours here was just amazing; the richness of the chocolate was nicely cut by the fresh saltiness of the goat cheese ice cream while the cajeta and marshmallows provided delicious bursts of sweetness. Who knew chocolate and goat cheese would go so well together! I finished with some excellent Intelligentsia Black Cat espresso, while Mrs. Nibbler enjoyed a rather decadent chocolate cappuccino made with Oaxacan chocolate.
Topolobampo dessert menu
Tartaleta de Chocolate con Cajeta
Lunch at Topolobampo certainly changed my perceptions of Mexican food. I was impressed by the depth of flavours achieved. The sauces in particular tasted complex, and were overlaid with a multitude of subtle tastes. The main courses were a disappointment though and were just not good enough to be called 'fine-dining' food. The starters and dessert showed some flashes of brilliance but I'd like to go back and try some other main courses before passing final judgement. So is Mexican haute cuisine possible? Based on my lunch at Topolobampo I would say that the jury's still out, but I look forward to learning more about this region's fascinating fare.

(Update 16.11.2010: Topolobampo was awarded a star in Michelin's inaugural guide to Chicago).

Food:         7 / 10
Service:      6 / 10
Ambiance:  7 / 10
445 North Clark Street
Chicago, IL 60654
Tel: +1 312-661-1434

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