Sunday, May 16, 2010

Topolobampo (with Rick Bayless sighting!)

A few days after we got back from Asia, we were off to Chicago. D had a business trip, and I seized the opportunity to visit my brother and work out of our Chicago engineering office. As always, I was very impressed by Chicago's tall buildings, clean streets, and excellent public transportation (San Francisco, I'm looking at you!). I also had many opportunities to be impressed with Chicago cuisine, starting with our dinner at Topolobampo on the very first night.

Rick Bayless (aka winner of Top Chef Masters 2009) has three restaurants in Chicago, all Mexican-themed, and all adjacent to each other. Topolobampo is the most high-end, but also the only one that takes reservations, so I booked it almost immediately after finalizing our Chicago plans.

We got there just on time, but unfortunately we were forced to wait over twenty minutes before we were seated. Luckily there was a display of books, sauces, and other goodies for sale, so we didn't get too cranky while waiting. As an apology, our waitress brought us two ceviches for free! Each martini glass was generously filled with shrimp, king crab, jicama, and cucumber, with a creamy lime-serrano dressing. I actually liked this ceviche better than any of the ones we ordered later.

In addition to the ceviches, we had this complimentary guacamole with jicama and cucumber chips. I don't like avocado much so I didn't try the guac, but the jicama was fresh and sweet and tasty.

Once we got the menus, we discovered that there were three tasting menus available, in addition to the a la carte menu. I'm a sucker for tasting menus, so we ordered all three (to share between the four of us), and supplemented with a trio of ceviches.

As I said before, I liked the free ceviche the best. However, the trio was also quite good. On the left is a hamachi ceviche, with avocado-tomatillo guacamole and mango-grapefruit salsa. It was good, but quite sweet, so it was not my favorite. The middle one paired shrimp and calamari with lime and orange juices, habanero, avocado, jicama, and cilantro. This one was too avocado-y for my taste. Finally, on the right is a marlin ceviche, with tomatoes, olives, cilantro, jicama, and green chile; it was my favorite of the three.

On to the tasting menus!

First we were served trout in escabeche. We'd had escabeche-style fish in Peru, and although I didn't try the fish itself, this sauce was similar in flavor. I liked the accompaniments: shiitake mushroom, puffed wild rice, and napa cabbage.

The next dish was also fish, but luckily it was uncooked. I couldn't tell what type of fish it was exactly, but the menu said "sashimi-grade Hawaiian day-boat catch". It was served with salsa and pineapple, but the fish itself had a fair amount of flavor already.

This course confused me a bit. The waitress described it as "enchiladas" made of jicama "tortillas", with crispy chicken and roasted vegetables. I felt like both the enchiladas and the chicken were overly fried for my taste.

I liked the subsequent dish much better; it was a red chile soup (very smoky and flavorful) with beef shortrib, "chayote" (a vegetable), and corn flour dumplings. I actually liked the soup itself more than anything in it.

Next up, seared pork belly with roasted tomato-habanero sauce, served with slow-poached egg and black beans. The pork belly itself was good but not stunning. I avoided the egg, but other people thought it was nicely done.

These pork carnitas were quite good, although I'm not sure if it was the meat that I liked so much as the delicious tomatillo salsa. The morel mushrooms were also yummy, as always.

Here we had another pork dish; this one had both carnitas and pork belly, confit-style. Bayless seems very fond of both jicama and tomatillo; again we had a fresh green tomatillo sauce, and again it was very good. The "homemade tortilla" didn't taste that different from a regular tortilla.

I didn't have this Alaskan black cod, but I ate plenty of the accompanying black barley (satisfyingly crunchy) and the sweet peas were also good. D liked the fried bits of blue crab roe, but I think I prefer my fish eggs raw.

Lots of fish that day; this one was a walleye with chile-peanut salsa. I liked the salsa very much, so I kept picking it off the top. The yellow stuff is an "uchepo crumble" which was kind of interesting, and there were also some beets and onions on the side, which I used to scoop up lots of the yummy roasted tomato-guajillo sauce.

This was one of my favorite dishes; the waitress explained that it was supposed to resemble a seashore, with "sand" made of yuca and "sea" made of chile, epazote (a spice), and tomato sauce. It was supposed to taste something like a seafood stew, but much lighter. All of the seafood was fresh and delicious, and it was really fun eating the "sand" with the "sea". Yum.

The next dish was highly anticipated; perhaps too much so. It was a lamb ribeye in black mole sauce, with seared lamb belly, huazontles (a vegetable), and black bean "tamalon" (the striped pastry-looking things). The mole sauce itself was very good, but the lamb was only above average. The tamalon were a bit disappointing; I thought they were too doughy, but I'm not sure what they're supposed to taste like.

Last of the entree dishes, this was rabbit cooked "barbacoa" (slow-cooked over open fire) with rabbit chorizo, mashed potatoes, and guacamole. Both preparations of rabbit were tasty, although the chorizo was a bit salty.

With three tasting menus came three desserts! The "lightest" one was a coconut rice pudding with creamy black "sapote nieve" (not sure what that is but it was yummy). On top was a toasted rice pastry, orange cream, and puffed rice. It was very good and I would have eaten more of it except that I liked the next dessert so much.

This was my favorite of the three; it was a fudgey chocolate ganache cake with espresso pudding, bittersweet chocolate ice cream, and crunchy cookie bits. Yum.

The last dessert sounded really interesting and was quite good, but I think it got outshone by the other two. It was called "Fruto de Cacao" and paired Mexican chocolate cake and milk chocolate ice cream with a foam made of cacao fruit. Unfortunately, the cacao fruit seemed not to have a very strong flavor.

In addition to the desserts that we'd ordered, we got two freebies. Because it was my brother's birthday, they brought him a passionfruit sorbet (very tart, very delicious). Also, we all got some mignardises: chocolates and gelees.

Amazingly, I've yet to mention the best part of the meal. Just as we were starting on our desserts, we noticed some other customers excitedly gesturing and whispering towards the kitchen. We became convinced that Rick Bayless was "in the house" and D asked if we could meet him. After some time, our waitress asked D to "quietly" follow her to the back of the restaurant. Since I knew that D barely knew who Bayless was, and my brother was a huge fan, I quickly told my brother to go instead, and I followed him with my camera. As a result, my brother had his photo taken with Rick Bayless, got to chat with him for a few minutes (he was super nice), and eventually we were even presented with an autographed menu. It being his birthday and all, I also bought my brother an autographed copy of one of Bayless' books. I'm such a nice sister. (Of course, this had nothing to do with me having been too lazy, tired, and/or forgetful to acknowledge my brother's birthday all through my college years...)

Anyway, it was a fantastic experience, and I highly recommend Topolobampo to anyone visiting Chicago. I'd be surprised to find another chef anywhere in the country that executes upscale Mexican food as well as Rick Bayless does.

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