Chicago is definitely Rick Bayless's town. Rick Bayless is to Chicago what Traci des Jardin is to San Francisco, but I would have to say that his influence on the food scene in Chicago appears to be much more dominating than any chef I can think of here. In the Windy City, he offers more elegant, upscale cuisine at Topolobampo, more casual food at Frontera Grill, and finally street food fare at XOCO. Having seen Rick Bayless prepare more complicated and sophisticated dishes during his stint on Season 1 of Top Chef Masters (in which he beat out numerous other talented, professional chefs), I was most interested in trying Topolobampo. I went ahead and made reservations for lunch about a month prior to my visit and waited, antsy to get there.
Once I eventually got to Chicago, I ended up having to spend about half my trip working in my hotel room to meet some expedited client requests. I also tried my best to attend the conference events when I could, but I was able to break away for a quick lunch with my friend and colleague, Lalee.
We got a nice little center table in the brightly colored restaurant and perused the ever-changing menu offerings. A plate of crispy chips and fresh guacamole was placed on our table. It was some of the best guacamole I had - spicy, salty and with fresh chunks of avocado - it was a perfect starter.
We decided on the Tamal de Huitlacoche, Espuma de Flores, a tender, sweet corn-hutilacoche tama with frothy sauce of Bayless Garden squash blossoms, Oaxacan quesillo cheese and poblana chiles, with summer squash confetti, epaszote, and huitlacoche dust, as a starter. We settled on the Carande Asada "Brava" and Chilaquiles al Pasilla as our entrees to share.
The Tamal de Huitlacoche came out first. I actually looked up huitlacoche when I got home, and I discovered that it is corn silage derived from corn smut, or diseased corn. Interesting. It doesn't sound very appetizing by description, but the dish was heavenly when we devoured it. The quesillo cheese in the sauce was strong but not overpowering. The tamal was soft and tender and had an exquisite texture, similar to silken tofu. We finished the whole plate.
Then came the Chilaquiles al Pasilla, which consisted of angel hair chilaquiles of crisp tortilla threads, smoky Oaxacan pasilla sauce and braised chard. The chilaquiles are formed into a large rectangle, filled with homemade fresh cheese and accompanied by Bayless Garden microgreens. We opted for the egg on top. Lalee is currently expecting, so we did have some dietary restrictions, e.g., no undercooked meat, no undercooked eggs, and no unpasteurized cheese. The server was more than willing to accomodate and made sure the egg was fully cooked.
The chilaquiles were crispy and flavorful, and tasted even better once you incorporated in each bite the egg and the cheese located inside the rectangle. I have to admit, I wish I had more sauce (perhaps drizzled over the top), but the flavors were hard to beat. This dish was very different from the chilaquiles I have had at Mamacitas in SF, where the chips come out whole but extremely soft from the absorption of the sauce. I liked the different interpretation.
Next up was what Lalee and I agreed was both of our favorites - the Carne Asada "Brava". This dish included spicy habanero-marinated wood-grilled Creekstone Natural rib-eye, with spicy salsa huevona, grilled knob onions and sweet corn tamal, which was topped with homemade sour cream and fresh cheese. The spicy salsa huevona made the dish. I could have eaten tubs of it. It is basically a "lazy" salsa with grill-roasted tomatoes and jalapenos that are hand-crushed. The salsa was draped over the meat and was also offered as an extra side. I loved it. It was spicy and smoky from the char-grill - absolutely delicious. The meat was also bursting with flavor and was surprisingly tender despite the fact that it was well-done (we had asked for it to be well-done to ensure there was no undercooked meat for Lalee).
We had great service, the food was amazing, and I felt privileged to be trying Chef Bayless's food. I really do wish that Rick Bayless will eventually expand his mini-empire to the bay area so I can enjoy his classic and authentic Mexican flavors more often (a Macy's Cellar eatery just does not suffice!). Until then, I will just bide my time until I can go back.
45 North Clark Street
Chicago, IL 60610