Tuesday, June 28, 2011
Topolobampo: Love at First Bite
In the hierarchy of American chefs, few are held in such high esteem as Rick Bayless. With the title of Top Chef Master, his own television show and multiple cookbooks, there's no doubting Bayless's success. But accolades and stardom aside, Bayless's greatest culinary contribution is introducing America to authentic regional Mexican cuisine when he opened Frontera Grill in 1987. Yet it wasn't until two years later when Bayless opened Topolobampo that Mexican food entered into the realm of fine dining, earning a Michelin Star earlier this year.
While New York may lay claim to some of the world's best restaurants and virtually every variety of ethnic cuisine, it doesn't necessarily mean they are all done well. In fact, despite its wealth of diverse restaurants, regional Mexican food continues to elude Manhattan. Therefore, it seemed apropos that we experience Bayless's food on our vacation by visiting Topolobampo for lunch.
Located directly next door to its wildly popular sister, Frontera Grill, we arrived right on time for our reservation, allowing us to bypass the long line of hungry diners. Overall, the dining room was formal but not stuffy and was decorated with various Mexican kitsch and artwork. Service was excellent. Attentive, but unobtrusive and knowledgeable, our server answered any and all of our questions.
To drink, MW ordered the daily changing Auga del Dia, which on this particular day featured Passion Fruit, Pineapple, Mint and Lime. Sweet but refreshing, the mint and lime prevented the drink from becoming cloying. I had the Scarlet Wave, a Limonada-Hibiscus Tea mixture that was great with all of our food.
To start, our server brought us a complimentary plate of Guacamole with Crispy Tortilla Chips. While I'm hesitant to declare this creamy and chunky guacamole "the best ever," it was still very good.
After hearing our server wax poetically about Topolobampo's incredible ceviches, we decided to order the Trio, Trio, Trio and sampled all three. Served in cocktail glasses, all of the ceviches were excellent.
The Coctail de Atun with Sashimi-Grade Hawaiian Yellowfin Tuna, Avocado-Tomatillo Guacamole and a Tangy Mango-Grapefruit Salsa was far and away the most refined ceviche we've ever had. The rich, buttery tuna was nice with the sweet mango-grapefruit salsa and creamy avocado-tomatillo guacamole.
The Ceviche Fronterizo with Lime-Marinated Hawaiian Albacore, Tomatoes, Olives, Cilantro and Green Chile was more of a traditional ceviche. The lime-marinated albacore was complimented by the brininess of the olives, sweetness of the tomatoes and heat from the chile, and was very well executed.
But the Ceviche Yucateco with Steamed Mexican Blue Shrimp and Calamari, Lime, Orange, Habanero, Avocado, Jicama and Cilantro was the overwhelming favorite of ours. This dish had everything: acidity, texture and sweetness; the crunchy jicama with the spicy habanero and sweet shrimp was complex and truly outstanding.
For her next course, MW ordered the Camarones y Callos de Hacha en Salsa Verde or fresh Gulf shrimp and Viking Village sea scallops with roasted tomatillo sauce, herby polenta-style tamal, wood-grilled fiddlehead ferns and salt-cured nopales. The dish was finished table side as our server poured a roasted tomatillo sauce (lobster stock, epazote, local ramps and morel mushrooms) over the dish. Everything, from the beautifully seared sea scallops to the succulent Gulf shrimp, were perfectly cooked, well seasoned and paired incredibly well with the roasted tomatillo sauce.
I chose the Carne Asada "Brava" or spicy habanero-marinated wood-grilled Creekstone natural ribeye with spicy salsa huevona, grilled knob onions and a sweet corn tamal topped with homemade sour cream and fresh cheese. Served with additional salsa huevona (hand-crushed, grill-roasted tomatoes, jalapeño) and hot tortillas on the side, I enjoyed the steak by itself whereas MW preferred to make her own tacos. While the beef was good quality, we were amazed by how just how much flavor the habanero marinade imparted on the meat. Even compared to the A11 Wagyu at L2O, we both were in agreement that Topolobampo's was better.
Our lunch at Topolobampo was truly an inspirational meal. This food had no semblance to any Mexican food we had ever eaten. No, this was a far cry from the overstuffed burritos and sloppy tacos we are accustomed to seeing. Perhaps it was the pristine ingredients, impeccable preparations or amazing flavors, but this was an eye-opening meal that will forever change how we think of Mexican cuisine and some of the best food we have ever eaten.
445 N Clark Street
Chicago, IL 60654
To see all the pictures from this meal click HERE.