I have been hearing about Rick Bayless and Topolobampo for some time before his appearance and eventual win on Top Chef Masters. I think I saw him for the first time compete on Iron Chef against Bobby Flay and he’s been a guest judge a couple of times on Top Chef, but I have to admit that the consistent high praises he received on Top Chef Masters definitely intrigued me more than anything. It was hard to imagine Mexican food being that good, but I fully admit that I’m quite inexperienced with Mexican cuisine despite growing up in Southern California. It really wasn’t until my college years when I discovered how tasty a burrito could be. So with my inexperienced palate (when it comes to Mexican food), I was quite excited to see what all the hullabaloo was about on this trip to Chicago.
Topolobampo is the fine dining option of Rick Bayless’ restaurant duo, but it shares the same entrance as Frontera Grill, the more casual eatery. Although Topolobampo has a more muted vibe and doesn’t share the same colorful Mexican art decor as Frontera Grill, it doesn’t exactly exude the same kind of stuffiness one would expect from a high end restaurant. The space is quite small and intimate though with many of the tables placed in close proximity of each other which I didn’t enjoy too much. With so much notoriety, it’s no surprise that in spite of calling well ahead of time, I wasn’t able to get any reservation earlier than 9:45pm. Yet despite such a late seating, the restaurant was still pretty much full and bustling with late diners.
Instead of bringing out a basket of bread for us to nibble on, they brought out a small bowl of guacamole. You could definitely taste the freshness of the avocados, and although the flavor was a little bit on the light side, I still enjoyed it. I also really liked that instead of tortilla chips, they served slices of fresh cucumber to eat with the guacamole. Maybe not the same crispiness but definitely a much healthier option.
The decision on choosing just one ceviche was tough, so we ended up ordering the trio of ceviches. There was the Ceviche Fronterizo which was made of lime-marinated Hawaiian albacore with tomatoes, olives, cilantro and green chiles. Next was the Ceviche Yucateco which was made with steamed Mexican blue shrimp and calamari, and then marinaded with lime, orange and habanero, then mixed with avocado, jicama and cilantro. Lastly was the Coctail de Atun Tropical which was Sashimi-grade Hawaiian yellowfin tuna prepared with avocado-tomatillo guacamole and a tangy mango-grapefruit salsa. Honestly, all the ceviches were excellent. The fish and the seafood were all very fresh, and flavors within each ceviche were nicely balanced between sweet, sour and salty. I particularly liked the the citrus slant of the Coctail de Atun Tropical and Ceviche Yucateco. I highly recommend ordering this to taste the spectrum of different ceviches.
I ended up ordering the “A Day in Merida, Yucatan” which was one of the prix-fixe menus that seemed to include 5 very interesting sounding dishes. First up was the dry-cured slow-smoked achiote pork sausage which was topped with a soft-poached egg yolk and served in a roasted tomato-habanero salsa. This was a nice start to the meal with some tasty sausage meat and smooth yet spicy salsa for some kick.
The Mochomos seems to be a consistent favorite among the Yelp reviewers, so this was the first of Pdho’s a la carte dishes. The bird’s nest looking aspect of the dish was actually crunchy threads of beef brisket (made from braised Tallgrass grass-fed brisket) with crispy onion strings and served over garlicky guacamole and spicy salsa roja. It looked quite interesting, and since it was served with some cilantro tortillas, I suppose it was a twisted (no pun intended) take on beef tacos. The flavors were good especially the guacamole and salsa, but the beef threads were a little too crispy and kind of unsubstantial. It kind of fell apart too quickly once you took a bite, but I like the creative execution of the dish.
Banana leaves made its appearance quite often throughout the meal… mainly for decoration, but I found it quite interesting, because I never really associated it with Mexican cuisine. This next dish seemed quite similar to a tamale but made with soft polenta which was infused with garlic, chives, epazote and cilantro and topped with turkey pibil and pickled onion gelatinas. I really liked the flavors in the tamal, and its smooth texture reminded me more like a savory firmer panna cotta in cake form. The turkey pibil was a little too dry for my liking, but I liked the pickled onions.
The duck breast in this dish was perfectly cooked with juicy medium rare meat and nicely crisped duck skin. I was quite impressed with the depth of the dark pasilla chile sauce. There were so many interesting flavors in the sauce and it really enhanced the taste of the duck breast. I also enjoyed the addition of the garlic-braised shiitake mushrooms and Nichols Farm Yukon gold potatoes with queso anejo. The juiciness of the mushrooms and creaminess of the potatoes added some contrasting textures to the dish.
This was probably one of my favorite entrees especially since it was filled with juicy tender shrimps and baby octopus which were nicely glazed with a subtle orange flavor, but it was the richly infused flavor in the sauce that made this dish quite delicious. I think there was a mix of fruit vinegar, lobster stock and spices which blended together quite well to provide a distinct seafood-y flavor to the broth.
Although it is hard to tell from the picture (and I can’t recall too much about this dish), it was Gunthorp heritage pork prepared three ways. There was a wood-grilled roasted pork loin and black bean-braised suckling shoulder and belly, and like any good Mexican pork dish, it wouldn’t be complete without some crispy chicharrones. Unfortunately, I was so full by this point that I couldn’t eat much of the dish, hence the sparse description.
I was beyond full and if it weren’t for the fact that dessert was included in the menu, I could have just skipped it altogether. Admittedly, I was not too keen on the dessert based on the description. It was curls of young coconut horchata ice cream, sticky coconut pudding, lemongrass gelatinas and crispy homemade puffed rice with an almond-rice horchata sauce. If it weren’t for the fact that coconut was all over this dish, I probably would have salivated more. Surprisingly enough, it was quite refreshing and tasty. The coconut flavor was quite subtle, and I really liked the crispness of the rice puffs.
Overall, I really enjoyed the flavors of most of the dishes, and I definitely think Rick Bayless has redefined my perception and understanding of Mexican cuisine. Granted, Topolobampo probably serves higher end Mexican cuisine. There was a distinct freshness and lightness throughout every dish, and although I’m not sure if this is in line with fine Mexican cuisine, I really appreciated the food more, because it wasn’t as heavy as I normally find Mexican food to be. (There was a lot less cheese, beans and rice.) What was really interesting was how all of the sauces had a complex mix of spices and ingredients which really enhanced the flavors of each dish. I felt like the sauces were key to the execution of many of the dishes. I have to say that I probably went in with some high expectations, and as a result, I don’t think my expectations were necessarily met. However, it doesn’t take away from the fact that the food is special and Rick Bayless has definitely taken Mexican cuisine to another level for me. It’s definitely worth a visit if you’re ever in Chicago.
445 North Clark St
Chicago, IL 60654
PAFO Ratings for Topolobampo:
Price 3½ stars
Ambiance 3½ stars
Food 3½ stars
Overall rating 3½ stars