Gorditas de Chicharrn for Brunch fronteragrill I love Gorditas so having it as a brunch option brightened my day! This place is always listed as one of Chicago's best. Known for their head chef Rick Bayless who likes to keep things authentic. The seasonal menu down to the cocktails only proves their dedication. Where are you guys Brunchin' today?
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.
Chicago Trip Recap, Part 3: Topolobampo
As promised in my Chicago trip recap part 2, I will devote a whole post to my meal at Topolobampo, Rick Bayless’ fine-dining restaurant. S, his sister V, and I were really excited to visit, and yes, we still wanted Mexican food after eating a huge meal at Frontera Grill just a day before.
Unlike most other fine-dining establishments that we’ve visited, one thing that we loved about Topolobampo was its lively atmosphere. There was music, plenty of lighting (do I hear a collective “yay!” from my fellow food bloggers?), and a nice, steady stream of chatter. It wasn’t noisy by any means, but there wasn’t a stifling quietness that often accompanies nice restaurants.
Cucumber-Lime Drink & Topolo Margarita
Couldn’t resist starting off with some drinks! V had a cucumber-lime drink (non-alcoholic), and I got a Topolo margarita – both were really nice and refreshing.
Their course system is very similar to that of Gary Danko – instead of separating the dishes into appetizers, entrées, and desserts, the items are separated into categories such as “Vibrant”, “Fresh”, “Complex”, etc. You can choose from any of the categories to make a 3, 5, or 7-course dinner. There’s also a Chef’s suggested “Perfect 7″. The three of us decided to each get a 5-course dinner, which is priced at $90, and share everything.
We got an amuse bouche to start… I wish I could remember what this all entailed, but I believe these were spiced melons.
Shortly after, we were presented with our first courses:
Summer Tomatoes, Yucatean Flavors: Leaning Shed farm baby tomato salad, modern sikil pak (fresh Lima beans, creamy pepitas, habanero, olive oil), clay baked torpea onions, habanero-lime dressing
I had to look up what “sikil pak” was – apparently it’s a Mexican pumpkin-seed dip, and I loved it! It had a lightly spicy kick and was really nice and creamy. The summer tomatoes were also really fresh and delicious.
Halibut Escabeche: sashimi-style wild Alaskan halibut, nineteenth century escabeche (homemade pineapple vinegar, garlic, black pepper, cumin, lime pieces, guero chile, black olive oil), local baby carrots, crispy capers
The halibut was quite fresh, but I felt that the marinade was starting overpower the delicate fish. The crispy capers were amazing, though.
Scallops in Aguachile Verde: Viking Villa sashimi-grade scallops, ripe Klug farm peaches, refreshing raw tomatillo salsa (Serrano chile, rooftap lemon verbana, mint), conpoy (dried scallop), shiso
Again, I felt that the scallops were being overpowered a bit by the tart tomatillo salsa. However, I thought that the combo of the dried scallop with the fresh worked really well.
Moving on to course 2…
Herb-Green Mushroom Pozole: crispy oyster mushrooms, pozole corn, roasted local ramps, herby-tangy-sweet pozole verde (tomatillo, pumpkin seeds, serrano, herbs), creamy nixtamal emulsion
This dish pretty much summed up all of my favorite vegetables: mushrooms, corn, pumpkin seeds, serrano peppers. So my reaction to this was basically, YES. It did not disappoint.
Goat Barbacoa: Kilgus Farm Boer goat two ways (classic slow-cooked barbacoa, modern “pancetta”), creamy garbanzos, red chile-infused braising juices, City Farm young radishes and other fresh garnishes
Goat barbacoa was one of the things that S’s labmate, who is from Mexico, recommended us to try if we had a chance. We really liked this – the goat had its characteristic gamey taste but just enough of it, the broth and flavors were rich and hearty. I’d never been a big fan of garbanzo beans, but these were actually quite good.
Chile en Nogada: roasted poblano chile, savory-sweet picadillo filling of trumpet mushrooms, local fruits and vegetables (tomato, apples, plums, pattypan squash), sweet spices & saffron, Nogada sauce (walnut, almond, sherry, crema, goat cheese)
Chile en Nogada is Mexico’s national dish – it’s basically a stuffed roasted chile with a nutty, creamy sauce and pomegranates – the colors are the same as the Mexican flag, and the flavors are quite traditional. I’ve never had this dish before, but this was one of my favorites of the night – the sauce was simply amazing. It was so flavorful, and everything was really well-balanced. I was quite sad to discover that the photo turned out blurry, and it doesn’t do justice at all to how wonderful of a dish this was.
Course 3 arrived shortly thereafter:
Black Cod, Yellow Mole: smoked Alaskan black cod, savory yellow mole (guajillo chile, herby pitiona, tomato), roasted Gunthorp slab bacon, braised baby fennel, charred eggplant-corn puree
This was the first mole of the night – we knew that Rick Bayless’ moles were famous, and that there are many different types. This yellow mole (more like orange, huh) was actually pretty light and went well with the black cod.
Venison with Pasilla: cured, wood-grilled Hawks Hill venison loin, black pepper-pasilla chile sauce, charred local eggplant, creamy-cheesy potato torta
S had never eaten venison before and decided to try it out – he ended up not liking it very much because it’s quite a gamey meat. I thought that it was one of the better venison dishes that I’ve had before – the black pepper-pasilla chile sauce was delicious! – but I do agree that it was really gamey. I guess serving it relatively rare doesn’t help, but that’s the best way to maintain the meat’s tenderness.
Roasted New Potatoes, Chileatole: roasted Iron Creek just-dug potatoes, local goat cheese, chileatole (tomato, guajillo, corn masa, epazote), chicarron crunch, limey radish & kohlrabi
I thought this was an elevated version of fries with ketchup… Is that horrible? The mini-potatoes were served with skin-on, which was actually a bit tough. I liked the goat cheese, but felt that the tomato-based chileatole was a bit too tart for me. The radish and kohlrabi helped lighten it up a bit, but I wished that there was just a bit more of those.
Onto the 4th course:
Lamb Loin, Green Pipian: grill-roasted Gunthorp lamb loin, herby macadamia green pipian (jalapeno, macadamia nuts, mint, arugula), tepary beans, extra virgin coconut oil, grilled escarole with Kaskaskia cheese
Unfortunately, I don’t remember much of this dish, except that the lamb was cooked perfectly. The sauce wasn’t too memorable to me, but I do believe that I must have liked it because macadamia nuts and jalapenos sound like an awesome combination in my head right now.
Smoky Chicken, Crispy Sweetbreads: nutty-spicy salsa macha, Romanesco broccoli and baby artichokes tossed with caramelized onion-raisin “chutney”
The chicken was quite tender (although not particularly smoky), and the crispy sweetbreads reminded me of karaage or Taiwanese-style crispy chicken, haha. S and V were quite impressed that somehow, we were able to find similarities between a Mexican dish and a Japanese one – even the savory-sweet onion-raisin chutney reminded us of Asian flavors!
Carne Asada in Mole Negro: wood-roasted 28-day-aged prime ribeye in classic Oaxacan black mole (chilhuacle chiles & 28 other ingredients), chipil tamal, black beans, smoky green beans
Finally, this was the star of the entire night, the famous carne asada in mole negro. Mole negro is one of the most complex moles, and this version consists of at least 29 ingredients and takes three days to make. The beef was cooked perfectly, and that mole sauce was so rich and luxurious. The three of us ate in silence, mopping up every last bit of the mole sauce with the fresh tortillas that were provided.
After that amazing mole, it was time for some dessert!
Cajeta Crepes, Chocolate, & Plantain: warm, buttery crepes with ripe plantain & bittersweet chocolate, cajeta (goat’s milk caramel), caramelized plantain ice cream, toasted meringue, Spence Farm whole wheat crumble
The crispy crepes and toasted meringue were my favorite parts of this dessert. The whole wheat crumble was a bit too tough, though.
Plum Frangipane Tart: gently-roasted Seedling Farm plums in flaky pastry, toasted pecan frangipane, anejo tequila caramel
I’m actually not a huge fan of fruits in desserts (with the exception of citrus fruits), so I wasn’t as excited by this dessert. The tequila caramel was pretty strong, though – it actually gave it an overall bitter taste, which I didn’t like very much even though I love tequila.
The Lime & the Coconut: Beck Grove lime pudding cake, creamy coconut pudding, banana leaf ice cream, masa harina shortbread crumble, Bayless Garden kafir lime leaf curd, crispy meringue
This was my favorite dessert out of the three, because it was the lightest and most refreshing. The lime pudding cake was really amazing – I would love to try and recreate it at home.
After the meal, we were presented with house-made chocolates and fruit chews, both of which were really good. The chocolate was on the acidic side, which actually worked quite well with the gummy candies!
House-made chocolates & fruit chews
Overall, what can I say? Topolobampo was an amazing experience. I am so glad that we were able to eat here, even after Frontera Grill and Xoco. The flavors are quite different from the Baja California-style Mexican food that we get here in San Diego – I’d say that they’re heartier and bolder. It was truly a memorable meal, and even now, more than a month later, S and I still talk about that mole negro. I’m not sure when we would have the chance to return to this place, but I highly recommend it if you’re in Chicago!
Topolobampo Chicago Restaurant Review
Day three dinner was at the King of Modern Mexican cuisine, Rick Bayless’s One-Michelin star restaurant, Topolobampo. If you haven’t heard of Bayless, you don’t deserve to enjoy tacos. Ha, just kidding. Sort of. He’s a James Beard award-winner, has written countless cookbooks on Mexican cuisine, has competed on Top Chef Masters (Season 1), and owns five restaurants in the Chicago area, with Topolobampo being the most high end. Now do you feel out of the loop? With the recent explosion of Mexican inspired restaurants in the GTA, I was determined to check out the birthplace and father and see how they all stack up. Maybe a good way to ruin my appreciation of my own city’s cuisine, but the sort of exercise a food blogger needs to partake in to best understand how food should be made.
To get to Topolo, one needs to first walk through Frontera Grill, the sister restaurant with a much more casual dining room, buzzing atmosphere, and slightly lower prices. As a first impression, I would say Frontera is likely a lot like our popular taco joints- loud, fun, tight, inexpensive (relatively), and primarily walk-in based. Topolo, in contrast, is more spacious, classy, chic and sophisticated. It’s a reservation-based restaurant that books up 8-10 weeks in advance, there’s a tasting menu, and the staff are wearing formal attire. Translation? I knew early on it was not going to be anything like the Parkdale hipster taco joints I was so used to frequenting back home.
We were sat at a spacious square four-top in the center of the room with a good view of the bright kitchen at the back. The room was buzzing but definitely not loud, with enough privacy to have an intimate conversation, while not feeling as though you’re eating in a stark stuffy restaurant at 5 PM.
Service was exactly my style- professional, knowledgeable and well paced while still feeling personable and laid back. Our server provided an excellent description of the sommelier’s wine choices, and the service staff all ensured that cutlery, plates and water were removed and replenished as necessary. I was also quite happy with the pace of the night- in and out with a tasting menu in about two hours.
Cocktails are not surprisingly largely tequila and mescal based, featuring both Mexican classics (Margaritas and Sangrias) and a few Seasonal recipes using exotic fruits, unusual liqueurs, and even chilies for a kick. For the non-tequila drinkers, each alternative spirit is represented with a classic cocktail, while a number of Mexican and Local Craft Beers are available by bottle and tap. Being a cocktail drinker myself, the first to catch my eye on the menu was the “Splurge Margarita”, a combination of Riazaul añejo tequila (aged in Cognac barrels), Grand Marnier, Cognac-infused Pineau Des Charantes, fresh lime, and gold leaf. Intriguing, but I’d rather have the gold on my body than in my mouth, we opted to start with the Oaxacan Gold (Wahaka Joven Espadin Mezcal, Wood-Grilled Pineapple, Mexican Vanilla and Fresh Lime, $11.50) and the Paloma Oaxaquena (Guero and Coriander Infused Wahaka Mezcal, Fresh Grapefruit, Fresh Lime, Honey, House Grapefruit Bitters, $12.50). Both cocktails were impeccably balanced and very spicy- especially the Gold which had a chili dusted rim. A great way to wake up the palate before heading into a big meal and transitioning into wine.
Speaking of a big meal, the food at Topolo is available a la carte or as one of three Chef’s Tasting Menus, with the option of added wine pairings. We went with our servers recommendations and opted for the Topolo Classic and Street food Flavour menus with wine pairings rather than the 3rd choice, the Mole menu. The following demonstrates each course represented first as the classic offering, followed by the street food dish:
Amuse: Cold Pea Soup Shooter
Nice refreshing start to the meal.
Ceviche of Ipswich Razor Clam & Baja Bay Scallop, Spicy Tamazula Hot Sauce, Garlic Chives & Flowers, Sorrel, Charales 2009 Heidi Weissburgender, Burgenland, Austria
The best ceviche I’ve ever tasted- the clams and scallops were fresh, and mildly sweet, balanced out nicely by the herbaceous puree and touch of heat from the hot sauce. I wasn’t crazy about the wine pairing though, mainly because I found it a little bland against the acidity of the ceviche.
Saffron-Infused Chicharron de Harina, Tangy Roulade of Pickled Pigs Feet, Homemade Arbol Hot Sauce, Dry Jack Cheese, Airy Avocado, Arugula Flowers 2009 Monte del Fra “Ca del Magro” Custoza Superiore, Veneto, Italy
This was quite tasty, but not as good as the former. I thought the flavours were absolutely spot on and the pickled roulade was totally addictive against the creamy mild avocado, but I found the chicharron a little stale.
Aged Beef Tenderloin Tasajo (Black Beans); Classic Chorizo (Oaxacan Pasilla Salsa, Quail Egg); Red Chili Pork Loin Cecina (Avocado-Tomatillo Salsa, pickled Tomatillos) Served on Homemade Corn Tortillas 2009 Leopardi Brut Rose, Penedes, Spain
I thought some of the tacos we get in Toronto are “cute”, but these were just adorable- three perfect tiny bites, each with their own classic flavour profile set on some of the best corn tortillas I’ve ever tasted. They were warm, fresh, sweet, with an irresistible chew that had me wishing I could take home a suitcase of them.
Tender Little Steamed Tortillas, Smoky Chipotle Sauce, Alubia Beans in Mexican Cincho Cheese, Bayless Garden Greens, Parsley Oil 2010 Vinicola Fraternidad “Nuvu” Valle de Guadalupe, Baja, Mexico
Again with the tasty tortillas, this dish was even better. The beans were cooked to a luscious tender consistency, swimming in a beautifully balanced sweet smoky sauce and held together by salty cheese. This literally felt like summer in my mouth- super refreshing and bursting with bright healthy flavour.
Pan-Roasted Wild Alaskan Halibut, Maine Lobster “Torchon”, Green Pipian of Toasted Sesame & Three Herbs (Hoja Santa, Cilantro, Epazote), Snug Haven Spinach, Roasted Local Sweet Potato, Braised Black Sesame 2010 J. Palacios Menia “Petalos” Bierzo, Spain
Lovely. Here, the halibut was seared to golden crispy perfection, paired with the most luxuriously sweet lobster and perfectly caramelized sweet potato. The highlights, however, were the two flawlessly balanced sauces which were both aromatic from the toasty nutty sesame and fresh from the greens and herbs.
Herb-Poached Alaskan Black Cod, Green Chiletole (Poblano & Serrano Chili, Three kinds of Corn, Epazote), Roasted Corn “Polenta”, Grilled Nopal Cactus, “Fossilized” Epazote. 2010 J. Palacios Menia “Petalos” Bierzo, Spain
I didn’t think it could get better, but I actually think I preferred the cod overall. I normally don’t like anything to be poached as I feel it’s a missed opportunity for “Maillard induced” flavour (woah, first year food science class). But honestly, the flavour that was packed into that flesh from the herb infused poaching liquid made up for the lack of crispy skin. Again, the gorgeous green sauce was packed with so much light, bright grassy flavour, but this time counterbalanced so nicely with the sweet juicy pop of the charred corn. I am a bit of a corn-freak, and having it woven into a single dish in so many ways definitely appealed to my addiction.
Wood-Grilled 28-Day-Aged Prime Ribeye & Seared Foie Gras in Classic Oaxacan Black Mole (Chillhuacle Chiles & 28 Other Ingredients), Corn Husk-Steamed Chipil Tamal, Unctuous Black Beans, Smoky Green Beans. 2006 Benegas Lynch Meritage “Libertad Vineyards” Mendoza, Argentina
I’m not usually a mole fiend, simply because I tend not to love chocolate anything, never mind on my meat. But this was one hell of a well prepared mole- with a nice tingle on the tongue from the chili automatically tempered by the rich deep toasted cocoa flavour, and an arsenal of spices. Everything worked in harmony so well with one another that no one ingredient stood out and overpowered any other. Both the beef and the foie were expertly prepared, and the chipil tamal offered a much-needed starchy relief from all the heavy flavours on the plate.
“Drowned Torta” of Slow Cooked Carnitas, Artisan Bolillo, Two Heirloom Beans, Spicy Tomato Sauce, Mustard Microgreens 2010 Topolovino Syrah, Edna Valley, California
Probably my overall favourite dish of the night. Two spongy soft slices of bread were packed full of sweet tender pulled pork and smothered in a bright tomato gravy that offered just a hint of satisfying heat. I literally cleaned the plate (with the help of a few house made tortillas, of course).
Warm Chocolate Mesquite Cakes, Mexican Vanilla Bean Ice Cream (Infused with Aromatic Rosita de Cacao), Sweet Masa Pudding (Nicuatole), Toasted Almond, Cocoa Nibs, Masa Crisps 2010 Susana Balbo Late Harvest Torrontes, Mendoza, Argentina
Like I said, I’m not usually a chocolate fan, but this was an incredibly well balanced dessert. The cakes had a very gentle smoky aroma to elevate the deep rich chocolate flavour and literally melted on the tongue as liquid chocolate. I also loved how the chards of cocoa that anchored the bottom of the plate created a really nice textural counterpoint to the smooth creamy ice cream.
Tortita de Santa Clara (Shortbread with Pumpkinseed Jamoncillo), Beso de Angel Ice Cream (Three Berries, Walnuts), Poached Rhubarb 2003 Oremus Tokaji Asuzu, Tokaji, Hungary
Simple and very tasty. The rhubarb was tender and not at all stringy with a bright tart flavour to counterbalance the sweet fruity ice cream. I also loved the crunchy little pumpkinseeds throughout the bowl, bringing a bit of a savoury element to an otherwise fruit-forward dish. I also must say that I can’t think of a better wine pairing for rhubarb as the Tokaji has a really nice sweetness to balance out its inherent tangy flavour.
Mescal Sea Salt Truffle with Prickly Pear Gelee
The truffle was lusciously creamy with a nice hit of salt to offset its richness, while the gelee was supple and sweet. A lovely way to end the meal.
So for two tasting menus with wine pairings, and two margaritas, the bill came to $450 including tax and tip- definitely not a cheap meal, but worth it nonetheless. This was one of my most enjoyable meals to date as the food was solid, the service was great and the atmosphere was just my style. I would definitely return to Topolo and look forward to trying Bayless’ other establishments in the future.
Seriously, some of the *best* (and most toxic) I've had, and I'd like to think I'm kind of a margarita connoisseur haha! They were perfect! The food was also Just an awesome dinner after a long day of travel and exploring! #Repost jaeleeparedes with repostapp. | girls | joylynnmua