Unbeknownst to many, Chicago has a vibrant Mexican food scene. From street vendors at the Maxwell Street Market to a diverse mix of neighborhood taquerías and changarros, and from restaurants that serve authentic regional specialties such as birria, cemitas, and poc chuc to restaurants that combine Mexican cooking with influences from France and Korea, Chicago’s got it all.
Of course, we also have Rick Bayless.
A white guy born in Oklahoma who studied anthropological linguistics at the University of Michigan, Rick Bayless’ pedigree reads like your archetypal gringo whose idea of an authentic Mexican meal might include hard-shell tacos, chicken fajitas, or chimichangas. Well he is anything but. Widely recognized as an authority in Mexican cuisine, Balyess tirelessly and passionately promotes authentic regional Mexican cooking through his cookbooks and TV shows. His restaurants are also among the most highly regarded. In fact, his fine-dining venture, Topolobampo, was the first Mexican restaurant to ever receive a Michelin star. And as of the date of this review, Topolobampo is still the only Michelin-starred Mexican restaurant in the world.
The word Topolobampo refers to the port city in Sinoloa, Mexico. The town was known for its brief attempt at being a Utopian colony at the end of the 19th Century. A lovely namesake. The restaurant itself is located in Chicago’s River North neighborhood, which is sandwiched between the touristy Gold Coast and the Loop. All three of Bayless’ restaurants are right next to one another. To get to the Topolobampo dining room, you first have to walk through the noisier and more casual Frontera Grill. But once you entered the veiled off Topolobampo, noise level, while still a bit high for fine dining, became noticeably curtailed. The dining room did not have the kind of décor where the word “luxury” might befit. The banquette was muted in color, if not a bit dated in its design. The tables and chairs also felt more like light-weight furniture seen in suburban breakfast rooms. Perhaps this was intentional, for my attention was naturally drawn toward the pops of colors in the Mexican artwork on the wall, the eclectic glassware and china on the table, and the festive yet tasteful flower arrangements sprinkled across the room. The dim lighting from the recently updated lantern-style fixtures created a cozy and intimate atmosphere. Sure, the room didn’t feel like a fine dining restaurant in Chicago. But, even better, I felt like I had just stepped into the welcoming home of a cultured bourgeois in Polanco.
The complimentary appetizer was guacamole with cucumber and turnip. The cucumber and turnip discs were a new thing for me. It acted well as vessels for the guacamole. But I’d say I still prefer warm, crispy chips, which Topolobampo used to make for the guacamole service. The guacamole itself was pretty simple – just avocado and sea salt. Savory, chunky, this was the traditional Aztec recipe Bayless has been promoting. As much as I enjoyed the guacamole, however, I found myself missing the onion and the citrus usually found in contemporary recipes.
The first proper course was foie gras con platano macho. The plantain was breaded and deep fried, proffering a mix of contrasting textures all by itself. The foie gras was in the form of terrine. The terrine was cured while wrapped in banana leaves, giving it an herbal aroma, which paired well with the plantain. The caramelized cocoa nibs and coarse salt added crunch and pops of intense flavors to the foie gras. The salsa negra formed a rectangular canvas at the bottom. The salsa was made with chipotle, which offered a wonderful smokiness and tempered heat to the dish. This bright and bold sauce was exactly the kind of sauce that makes Topolobampo unique – you simply can’t find this in French-based or Italian-based haute cuisine restaurants.
Next was a presentation of three tacos on a banana leaf. Nostalgically named “tres bocaditos Oaxaquenos” (three bites of Oaxaca), the dish showcased Bayless’ knowledge of regional Mexican flavors. The first was aged beef tenderloin, which was smoked tasajo-style (a Oaxaca beef jerky). Hidden between the tasajo and the homemade tortilla was black beans. The waiter introduced it as a tlayuda – a Oaxaca concept I’m not familiar with. I enjoyed the bite all the same – that was some intensely flavorful cuts of beef. The second one consisted of pork loin cecina, avocado-tomatillo salsa, and pickled tomatillo. The cecina was flavored with red chile powder and had a kick. This was balanced by the tartness from the pickled tomatillo and the mild sweetness of the salsa. The third one was chorizo with Oaxaca pasilla salsa and quail egg. The egg was perfectly poached. The yoke coated the chorizo and mixed with the salsa, harmonizing all the piquant flavors. This was my favorite bite of all.
The seafood main course was langosta en pipian verde de pistache. The presentation was in an attractive Taiji pattern, with the lobster tail in ying and lobster claw in yang. The lobster was perfectly poached, accompanied by butter roasted porcini, supple cauliflower flan, and pistachio crunch. What bound the ying and the yang was another mesmerizing sauce – a pistachio pipian that had the smokiness and the heat from roasted chile poblano, the nuttiness from the pistachio, and the brightness from cilantro and watercress. This was a well-composed dish and my favorite of the night.
The meat course was carne asada y barbacoa en mole negro. The carne asada was seared American wagyu (from Missouri). It was perfectly medium rare – so perfect I wonder if it was cooked sous-vide and seared only at the very end. The meat itself was not very marbled, however. Other than the Washugyu from Oregon, I have never been impressed by the marbling in American wagyu. As such, the meat by itself was not very flavorful – definitely not as flavorful as the marinated and grilled carne asada sold next door in Frontera Grill. The barbacoa was slow-roasted lamb (from Wisconsin) and, again, it was cooked perfectly – tender and offered no resistance to my fork. The meats were complimented by mole negro – a Oaxaca classic. Mole negro is known for its complexity, and the menu description was not subtle in pointing that out, as it read “chilhuacle chiles & 28 other ingredients.” Thick and rich with bitter sweetness from the chocolate and the tangy heat from the chiles and the herbs, this mole sauce lifted the dish to another level instantly. I loved the inclusion of tamal de chipilín in the dish – perfect for mopping up all the mouth-watering mole.
Dessert was cleverly named “caras de chocolate Oaxaqueno” (faces of Oaxaca chocolate). The chocolate cake was made with mesquite flour – warm, bittersweet, and smoky, it imparted a complexity of flavors rarely found in chocolate cakes. The ice cream was malted vanilla, perfumed with the scent of cocoa blossoms. The two main components of the dish really played off each other well – both in flavors and in temperatures. Toasted almonds were added to provide textural interests. Also on the plate was nicuatole. I’ve never had nicuatole before. Apparently it’s a traditional snack from Oaxaca. Made from ground corn masa, the nicuatole had a subtle sweetness with a hint of cinnamon. The texture was gelatinous and very refined; that combined with the peachy color scheme oddly reminded me of wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets).
The meal concluded with a selection of competent mignardises, a nice touch rarely seen in Mexican restaurants in the US. Another interesting aspect of Topolobampo is that it has a solid wine program. Because of its ubiquitous use of spices, Mexican cuisine can be difficult to pair wine with beyond sparkling wines. But sommelier Jill Gubesch designed a wine pairing that went perfectly with the food. The selection of 2009 Bodegas Triton “Avante” Mencia to pair with the lobster course was particularly surprising and genius. The brightness and spices in this Spanish red stood up to the sauce without overpowering the lobster. An astute pairing for sure. And of course, the selection of seasonal cocktails shaken table side would go just as well with the meal as the wines.
The service that night was superb. Our waiter was professional, friendly, and extremely informative. He talked about the food as if he cooked it himself – full of passion and detailed knowledge about the preparations and ingredients. He also did a great job describing the wine pairing. It was the kind of exemplary service that would leave a long-lasting impression. Frankly, however, service at Topolobampo could be a hit or miss, depending on who you get as a waiter. Specifically, there is this one specific waitress, who has been working at Topolobampo for years, who is cold, sarcastic, and impatient. Both my friend and I have encountered her before on two separate occasions and were quite nervous that she would be our waitress again. Fortunately, even though she was working that night, our table was not within her jurisdiction. It’s a wonder how a restaurant like Topolobampo can harbor wait staffs that have such polar opposite service attitudes and styles.
And so, I had yet another memorable meal at Topolobampo. In a six-course tasting menu, Bayless showcased an array of nuanced yet balanced sauces that put the French mother sauces to shame, and he also reaffirmed that Mexican cuisine is unmatched in its versatile and sophisticated use of chocolate in both sweet and savory. My dining companion had a completely different tasting menu that emphasized use of seasonal produce in farmer’s market. There was another distinct tasting menu that offered a survey of flavors from Mexican beach towns. Unlike French and American restaurants that distinguish tasting menus by price, length, and quality of ingredients, Topolobampo offers three unique experiences in the same number of courses at similar prices. Topolobampo’s versatile repertoire is singular in the world of haute cuisine in this country. If you are a fan of Mexican food and wonder what its potential could be in the context of fine dining, Topolobampo’s tasting menu format is a must. I am not aware of another restaurant in the US that is cooking Mexican food at such refined level and with such academic fervor and respect for Mexican culture. If it was up to me, Topolbampo would have 2 Michelin stars.
445 N Clark St
Chicago, IL 60654