Saturday, February 18, 2012

Don't Forget the Bayless Flagships

For good reason, much of the Rick Bayless talk lately has been about his wonderful new O’Hare tortas spots. Frontera Grill and Topolobampo seem to get less attention now, but based on the meal I had a couple of weeks ago they’re no less deserving . In fact, of the 12-15 meals I’ve eaten over the years at Frontera, the most recent one - where I sat at the Frontera bar but ordered from the Topolo menu - was the best ever. So special, in fact, that I’m confident in saying that no matter what hot openings we continue to have, Topolobampo remains at or near the top of the list of Chicago's best restaurants.

The gordita inflada, simultaneously lighter and crisper than any gordita I’ve ever had, was stuffed with flavorful greens and topped with a dead-perfect slow poached egg (showing that the Topolo crew is respectful of but not beholden to ancient technique, I suspect that an immersion circulator was involved in this dish). It’s an ultra simple preparation that’s outstanding mostly for its perfection in cooking technique, but it’s elevated still by tangy aged cheese and a salsa negra that I damn near licked off the plate.

A terrine of foie gras and ripe plantain was among my favorite foie gras preparations ever, and the many components came together in perfect balance. Ultra-rich and crisp croutons made with brown butter. Cocoa nibs sweetened and caramelized just enough to retain only a bit of pleasant bitterness. More of that phenomenal salsa negra, made extra earthy and complex by the addition of reduced sherry. Sharp arugula dressed with a bit of lemon to add a light and refreshing touch to a rich, incredibly well balanced plate of food.

The two dishes above were among the best I’ve had anywhere, but even they were no match for dessert. I remember reading somewhere about Frontera’s pastry chef being a rising star, and I believe she recently won a prestigious award of some kind. Whatever praise is laid upon her, it’s understated. Topolobampo’s fuyu persimmon cake just might have been the best dessert I’ve ever had. The cake itself was moist and generously but not overwhelmingly spiced. It was topped with homemade persimmon spoon fruit, and served with “cream cheese frosting ice cream” that could not have more delicious or a more perfect match for the spice in the cake and the natural spiciness of the persimmons. But what really made this dish was the whole wheat tuile garnish. The first bite was a jarring one, as the tuile is utterly devoid of sweetness. At first I wondered what it was doing on a dessert plate, but then intermixing bites of that very earthy, lightly salty crisp with the sweet and spicy rest of the plate revealed its brilliance. I was floored.

We are lucky to have a lot of terrific restaurants in Chicago, and with the slew of enticing openings it’s tempting to try something new each time you eat out. But if you haven’t been to Frontera or Topolobampo in awhile, you owe it to yourself not to let more time go bye. These are special places operating at the highest level even by their own very high historical standards.

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