Thursday, September 16, 2010

Taste of Chicago: Topolobampo

Let me first set the scene for our Topolobampo dinner...My employer has a semi-annual conference, wherein all of us lawyers from across the country gather to talk about our particular brand of bureaucracy - exciting, right?! You know it! Well, even if the conference is crazy boring (and the Hyatt Regency WiFi is crap - not cool!), I do work with some truly lovely people, some of whom I do not get to see unless we are at this particular conference (in addition to the freaks, but we won't get into that). Several of these truly lovely people joined me for a late dinner reservation at Topolobampo. We were all in a festive mood, and looking forward to a night of enjoying each other's company and good food.

We were seated at a corner table with a view of the dining room, and within sniff distance of the kitchen. After a few minutes perusing the menu, we ordered libations. I found the mojito a tad bit strong (I wanted to remember my meal), so I exchanged it for a classic margarita. In ordering our drinks, we experienced the first of our service hiccups. Our server was extremely serious, almost surly. We asked about the margaritas? "They're good", was her response. Further, she seemed to be annoyed when the members of our party dared to laugh or converse while she presented a dish. Food has become a serious business, I get that, but that doesn't mean you have to take all of the fun out of the experience. And with the preaching of Rick Bayless (the whole "love your food, live what you love, enjoy yourself when eating, drinking, cooking" mantra), I'd like to think he would agree with my assessment.

Another issue presented itself when we started asking about the menu proper. (By this point, I was the annoying girl asking questions - I've never had a problem with being that girl - I would rather have my question answered than worry about annoying someone.) Because not every member of a party has to order a tasting menu at Topolobampo (I liked this fact), only two of us (N and myself) planned to do so. We shared this with our server, and then asked for recommendations on which route to go with tasting menus (one from the recent White House State Dinner - all out gluttony, one with tastes inspired by the restaurant staff's annual trip to Mexico City, and one for the "adventurer"). The server proceeded to tell us that the White House State Dinner was the most expensive option because it had the most expensive ingredients, that the tastes of the Mexico City menu were inspired by their staff trip (no examples, or anything), that the adventurer's menu was "more adventurous". Ya think?! I was not asking her to recite back the menu - I am literate - I was asking for her opinion; evidently, this was a mistake.

Though a little bit of information would have assisted our choice, N and I were not deterred - she chose the White House State Dinner menu (cause she's from LA, and high maintenance like that - I love her!) and I went with the adventurer's menu, because why not?! Other guests of our party tried a smattering of appetizers and entrees from the general menu.

N and I shared, but I only had a bite of one of the other entrees, so mostly, my perspective is from the tasting menus, five courses each. I think the best way of describing what we had would be to lay out the restaurant's presentation of each dish, and then my take. We'll start with N's tasting menu:
Tostadas de Atun:  tostadas layered with sashimi-grade ahi tuna, homemade green chile mayo, ripe avocado, crispy knob onions, Bayless garden microgreens. 
The ultimate chips and guac, with super-fresh ingredients and nice bold flavors. You will find no complaints from me about this particular course.

Ceviche Verde:  Sashimi-grade Hawaiian ahi tuna with Mexican "chimichurri" (cilantro, parsley, roasted garlic, serrano chile, olive oil), fresh-squeezed lime juice, cucumber and jicama. Roasted fennel, fennel pollen, dry Jack chicharron, pinenut crunch.
Ehh...the flavor was a little underwhelming, and the fennel did not fuse with the other flavors. Plus, N, a few margaritas in at this point, insisted on complaining about the jicama but referring to it not with an "H" but with a "J" -  I liked the crunch it added, but N did not care for it. She did, however, keep me giggling.

Mariscos al Mojo "Blanco y Negro":  Pan-roasted Maine lobster and Viking Village day-boat scallops with black-and-white mojo (fermented black garlic, white garlic, olive oil, chipotle, lime). Nichols Farm spinach, puffed quinoa, Bayless Garden chives.

Lobster and scallops, so a nice foundation, but the seafood was not as tender as I would have liked, and again, the flavor was lackluster, even with all of that garlic. It smelled nice though.

"Ribeye" en Mole Negro:  Creekstone Natural seared ribeye with Oaxacan black mole (3 chiles plus 25 other ingredients). Black bean tamalon, wood-grilled green beans, tangy jamaica jewels.
This was probably the dish I was most excited to try, one, because I love mole, and two, because this is freakin'-Rick-Bayless-twenty-eight-ingredient-mole. Now, let me qualify this statement by explaining that I only had one bite of the steak (N enjoyed it) dipped in mole, and the rest of my mole sampling was completed by dipping my finger in it. The mole though, not special. It was tasty in the way that other moles are tasty, but the flavor was not nearly as complex as I would have expected twenty-eight ingredients to be.
Tartaleta de Chocolate con Cajeta:  Crispy custard tart of creamy Mexican chocolate and uncuous cajeta (goat milk caramel). Toasted marshmallows, graham cracker "gravel," goat cheese ice cream and height-of-season local strawberries.

Dessert was a high point for both N and I. The sweet and sour flavor of the goat cheese ice cream balanced out the rich chocolate flavor. The pastry also a nice texture, flaky, yet moist and cakey.
On to my adventurer's menu:

Patita de Puerco, Chorizo, Erizo:  Crispy nugget of homemade chorizo and pig's feet, unctuous slow-poached egg, creamy tequila-infused sea urchin sauce. Dollop of smoked paddlefish roe.
Hands down, the best taste of the night. This dish was what I wished for in the entire meal. Complex, unique, rich, surprising, satisfying. First, the 24-hour sous-vide egg was gelatinous yet gooey, and I mean that in a good way. It perfectly complimented the savory chorizo nugget, which was also incredible - like a Mexican terrine. The flavors of tequila, urchin, and roe perfectly balanced and highlighted the dish. Scrumptious.

Ancas de Rana en Salsa de Frijol Negro:  Lake Okeechobee frog legs with chipotle-black bean sauce and creamy polenta-style tamal infused with red guajillo chile. Nichols Farm snap peas, crispy potato ring, Bayless Garden microgreens.
Do frog legs make this dish "adventurous"? Well, it wasn't the flavors - they were incredibly mild. This reminded me of a basic pot pie - you know what they say about frog legs; tastes like chicken! I just found this entire plate underwhelming and forgettable.

Cachetes de Halibut en Verde:  Garlicky, pan-roasted Alaskan halibut cheeks in herby Tabasco-style "verde" sauce (peas, garlic chives, cilantro, parsley). Yellow fava bean mash, pickled pasilla chiles, River Valley Ranch shiitake mushrooms.
I'd never actually had the pleasure of halibut cheeks before this meal. Honestly, had I not read the description, I would not have been able to tell you these were not simply fillets. The cheeks were tasty, but not distinguishable from countless other presentations of halibut. Perhaps I'm missing something. The verde sauce, again, was a little bland, though the freshness of the ingredients did shine. The component of this dish that I most enjoyed was the fava bean puree - I would definitely take more of that.

Pozole Rojo de Chivo:  Tender, 24-hour braise of Kilgus Boer goat, guajillo chile and pozole corn. Crispy tostaditas, crunchy Napa cabbage, tangy lime, aromatic Mexican oregano.
The goat was not tender, it was chewy. Top that with a not-tasty posole, and this was not my favorite. I ate the cabbage separately because I enjoyed the lime and oregano accents and I did not want to pollute this component with the rest of the dish.

Chocolate, Cerezas y Cerveza:  Dark chocolate cake with dark cherries, Oaxacan chocolate ice cream with Negra Modelo, malty crunch, "drunken" tart cherries.
This was a lovely, rich dessert course full of deep pleasing flavors. Smoky, sweet, and a little spicy. Again, dessert was a success.
Generally speaking, I would say that N's plates were better than mine, but not mind-altering. Both had reverse bell curves with outstanding appetizers, and quite tasty desserts, but had rather blah courses in the middle.

I cannot express to you how much I wanted to love Topolobampo. Yes, my expectations were high, but the problem at hand was not merely disappointment from high expectations. It's quite simply that I did not love it - yes, there was one incredible moment in this meal, but I just was not wowed.

1 comment:

W. Mark Felt, Sr. said...

New and improved...with paragraph breaks (blogpost, our relationship is on thin ice!)