When you talk about Mexican dining in Chicago, one of the first names that always pops up is Rick Bayless. His cookbooks, food products and television shows have gained him national recognition and numerous accolades, and his modernist approach to cooking has put him at the forefront of Mexican cuisine in the United States. Luckily for us he calls Chicago home and owns three restaurants downtown, all located right next door to one another. There’s XOCO, the casual joint specializing in the best tortas you’ll probably ever have; Frontera Grill, Bayless’ first restaurant; and Topolobampo, one of America’s first fine-dining Mexican establishments when it opened back in the 80s.
Having already been to XOCO and Frontera, I wanted to try the best Bayless had to offer so I went about making reservations to Topolobampo. Even though it’s been open for more than 20 years, it’s still a hot ticket and I had to book roughly three months in advance for a Saturday evening table. Oftentimes, when there’s so much anticipation for a meal, the food rarely lives up to the hype. That was not the case on this night.
Upon arriving at Frontera, we realized that there’s a fine line separating it from Topolobampo—literally. The two share the same space and the only thing dividing the noisy dining room of Frontera from its sister restaurant is a curtain. Whereas Frontera is casual and a bit hectic, Topolobampo is reserved, calm and generally more relaxed. The menu features a changing selection of raw starters, salads and other appetizers, and main entrees. There’s also a choice between a few tasting menus, which are a combination of several courses off the regular menu.
We started with the sashimi Hawaiian yellowfin tuna over guacamole with mango-grapefruit salsa, served in a nice martini glass. It. Was. Unbelievable. The guacamole was understandably the best I’ve ever had, but the tuna just launched the dish into its own stratosphere. Mix in the salsa and you’ve got a flavor combination that I’d eat every day for the rest of my life if I could, mercury levels be damned.
It was difficult to imagine anything that could top our impossibly-hard-to-follow starter course but our entrees were every bit as good. We both opted for the Maine lobster poached in lime-garlic butter, salsa huevona and sweet corn tamales. Quality seafood is a scarcity in the Midwest but this was as good it gets. There are very few things better than lobster and these lobster claws were fresh and delicious, and the spicy salsa gave it the nice kick that I like in all of my food. The tamales contrasted the other components on the plate with a nice hint of sweetness and although I can’t say I have lobster very often, this was certainly my most enjoyable meal with it.
Feeling with very content with ourselves, we pushed on towards dessert. Never one to shy away from the sweets, we went with the chocolate cake with buttercream, strawberries two ways and raw sugar ice cream as well as the olive oil tres leches cake with olive oil ice cream, homemade ricotta and gooey meringue. The tres leches dessert was solid but unspectacular—very sweet with a strong olive oil flavor. It was the torta de chocolate that was the winner of the two; the plating was so pretty it almost felt like a shame to mess it up by eating. Cake, ice cream and strawberries, three of my favorite foods making for a perfect ending to a wonderful meal.
Not to follow Gary’s trend of ranking meals, but all in all I’d have to put Topolobampo as one of the top five meals of my life. From start to finish, the food and service were excellent (and I didn’t even talk about the cocktails, of which the mango mojito I had was also fantastic). Rick Bayless gets a lot of press and it’s easy to see why now—he backs up the talk with his cooking. Topolobampo is an amazing experience because it’s not just the only fine dining Mexican restaurant around; it’s one of Chicago’s finest restaurants, period.