Topolobambo – 449 N Clark Street, Chicago, IL
Usually when we get home on Friday night and neither of us wants to cook, Sara and I are browsing through the Friday night scraps of reservations on Open Table and usually end up with slim pickings….last night, however, there popped open an evening restaurant at a spot that’s been on our list for quite some time- Rick Bayless’s Topolobambo, which just recently got Phil Vettel’s coveted 4-star rating, which he seems to only hand out to Dave Beran for his renditions at Next (although he did recently give 4 stars to the new Spiaggia as well). Anyways, as big fans of the vastly more affordable Xoco (and Tortas Frontera in Terminal 1 at O’Hare), along with his TV ventures, and Frontera Grill, we were quite excited at the prospect of dining here. And it did not disappoint.
First off, as we sit down and are handed our menus, another couple gets seated just behind us – and wouldn’t you know it, the man himself sits down right behind us with his wife Deann and later joined by the chef de cuisine. Sara got a little star-struck and as much as we wanted to, we’re not the type of people who would want to bother him at dinner, even if he’s at his own restaurant (although we thought it would be hilarious if we asked the waiter to drop a bill in front of him, just to see his reaction).
Anyways, you probably just want to hear about the food. There’s 8 sections of the menu here, and you can choose either 3, 5, or 7 courses to “choose your own adventure”, so to speak (for $55, 90, or $120), or you can go with the recommended “Mexico City 1831” 7-course menu (also $120), inspired apparently by one of the first Mexican cookbooks published in that year. I decided on the Mexico City menu, with two substitutions…
The amuse was a nice preview of things to come – an interesting mix of flavors, but Far from subtle. In fact, if there’s one word that I could use to sum up the meal at Topolobambo, it would be “intense”. The one biter here was a thin square of lemon and a healthy dose of smoky chile powder and a cold lime crema. The heat here was pretty in your face, but balanced nicely by the lime and the melon.
The journey starts with the halibut escabeche, a meaty generous chunk of sashimi-style halibut, bathed in a very strong, sour pineapple vinegar broth. May be overpowering for some, but I thought it was a nice way to wake you up to start the meal. Cumin and pepper flavors were apparent and some capers were a crispy way to introduce some texture into the dish.
Next was one of the highlights of the night – a roasted poblano chile, stuffed with a healthy dose of trumpet mushrooms, served in a “Nogada” sauce – basically a whipped up mix of got cheese, walnuts, sherry, and scattered with a few pomegranate seeds – the presentation was lovely, but the flavors were incredible. The chile itself has a heat that creeps up on you, and just as you’re enjoying the meatiness of the mushrooms, then *BAM*, it hits you, so you scoop up a bit of the subtly sweet goat cheese sauce, and it balances everything out. One of the best things I’ve eaten in awhile….
Next up is a dish that had an almost Southern feel to it – the chicken itself was bit overcooked and dry, and smokiness was very faint, but the sweetbreads were fantastic – extremely tender and flavor with the right amount of light batter. The “chutney” had more of a chicken gravy like flavor – the sauce was sprinkled with a few raisins, which were interesting, but for the most part unnecessary.
The next dishes were the meat dishes – the first, a rare grilled piece of venison – extremely gamey, with a small piece of eggplant, and a potato torta that featured razor thin slices. The sauce – a chile pasilla sauce was suprisingly mild, but had a great, smoky flavor. The carne asada was surprisingly similar, perfectly roasted to a medium rare with a black mole sauce, and served with a wonderfully soft foie gras, some greens and a bit of tamal.
Dessert was solid and not overly sweet.