LTH Home

Five Courses at Topolobampo

Five Courses at Topolobampo
  • Forum HomePost Reply BackTop
     Page 1 of 3
  • Five Courses at Topolobampo

    Post #1 - February 24th, 2005, 9:31 am
    Post #1 - February 24th, 2005, 9:31 am Post #1 - February 24th, 2005, 9:31 am
    It's always fun when opportunity and desire converge in a dinner that you've been thinking about for a while. Some places just sit on your list for years (usually because of the price tag). Topolobampo has always been one of those "eventually" places for me. Below is my roundup of the 5 course chef's tasting Ms. EC and I had earlier this month.

    --------------------------------------------------------------

    Ms. EC and I finally had the chance to take on Topolo and see what it is that makes a place like this endure for so many years in the face of so much competition. Topolo has been on my radar for quite some time, but high-end dining opportunities don't come by all that often. When I finally took the plunge and made the reservation, my anticipation grew with each passing week.

    Situated just to the north of Frontera, and accessed via the Frontera dining room, Topolo's dining room is lively and comfortable with plenty of vibrant Mexican art on the walls (some of which was on loan to the Mexican Fine Arts Center in Pilsen). We were seated in the center of the dining room facing the partially-open kitchen. The room is crowded and lively, but comforting and relaxing. There is a constant stream of waiters, managers, and servers moving around you, but the lighting, music, and art help you feel like you're in your own cocoon watching the show.

    So, on to the food.

    With our menus we were presented with a complimentary bowl of guacamole with cucumber and jicama slices (in lieu of chips). I expected something a little more avant-garde as an amuse, but I stopped caring as soon as I tasted the guacamole. Creamy, spicy, and as fresh as can possibly be, this was some damn good guac. I was impressed, but I also know that it's pretty easy to make good guac, so we cleaned the bowl and moved on to the menus.

    We went all-out on the ordering, opting for the 5-course chef's tasting menu with wine pairings. The tasting menu was presented to us as a separate item with all the courses and wines specified beforehand so we knew what we'd be getting. Our waitress made it clear that we were invited to make any substitutions that we wanted, the printed menu seemed to be more of a "suggestion". I substituted my first course and Ms. EC took it all as-is. Here's a rundown:

    First Course: Atun con Salsa de Frutas Secas - ancho-crusted, seared-rare
    Hawaiian ahi tuna with salsa of morita chile, dried apricot, pear,
    cherries and apples; morita-dressed chayote salad. Paired with a 2003 J & HA Strub "Niersteiner Bru&ckchen" Riesling Kabinett, Rheinhessen, Germany.

    Ms. EC enjoyed the combination of the rare tuna, chile flavors, and fruit. I can take-or-leave seared tuna, and I knew Topolo would serve some fresh oysters so I substituted a 3-oyster sampler with a California brut sparkling wine. The oysters, all west-coast, were served with two salsas, one lime-oriented and one which was more of a chile-tomato base. I generally feel bad drowning good oysters in powerful sauce, so I only dotted the little guys (but I ate a good portion of the salsas straight).

    Second Course: Crepa de Huitlacoche - crispy green-chile crepe folded around Three
    Sisters Garden inky corn mushrooms, roasted local winter vegetables and melted Jack cheese, with avocado-tomatillo salsa and pea tendril salad. Paired with a 2003 Verdad Albarino, "Ibarra-Young Vineyard," Santa Ynez Valley, California.

    This was the highlight of the meal for me. The crispy crepe filled with huitlacoche mushrooms was packed with earthy, fresh flavors. I could've eaten 4 of these.

    Third Course: Camarones Dos Estilos - pan-seared fresh Gulf shrimp and crispy, herby shrimp "albondigas" in savory roasted tomato-serrano "broth," with wood-roasted poblanos and garlicky potatoes. 2001 Reserva Quinta Do Crasto, Old Vines, Douro Valley, Portugal.

    Of particular note in this dish were the "albondigas", little crunchy shrimp fritters packed with sweet bits of shrimp and herbs. I was slightly disappointed in the broth, which I expected to pack more of a punch, but no heat from the serranos came through. Still, the sweetness of the shrimp created a nice match to the savory, rich broth and potatoes.

    While we were enjoying this course. Ms. EC said to me, "Look who's here." I looked over my shoulder to find Rick Bayless sitting down to dinner at the next table with his wife Deann. It was interesting to see the Bayless' perusing the menu and ordering drinks from their waitress at their own restaurant, (I guess they must like it there). If you didn't know who they were, you wouldn't have been able to tell them apart from any other customers.

    Fourth Course: Borrego en Mole Negro - roasted Crawford Farm lamb in classic Oaxacan black mole (made from chilhuacle chiles and 28 other ingredients) with black bean tamalon and wood-grilled green beans. 2002 Tikal "Patriota," Mendoza, Argentina

    I was impressed with the tender lamb and the rich, nutty mole. Ms. EC expected to be more impressed by the mole than she was, but I still contend that it was one of the finer classic black moles that I've had. The deep Argentinian red wind blend was an exceptionally good pairing.

    Dessert sampler: Mexican Chocolate cigars, pineapple upside-down cake, banana sour cream ice cream in an almond tuille. 2001 Domaine Des Baumard "Clos De Sainte Catherine," Coteaux Du Layon, Rochefort Sur Loire, France.

    The Mexican chocolate was the real treat here. It has a natural spicy flavor that tastes like it was spiked with anise (although the waitress swears that no spices were added). Also of note was the banana ice cream which had the most natural banana flavor in an ice cream that I've ever tasted.

    With our check, we were served a little box of Mexican chocolate truffles and guava candies. A nice treat, since we loved the chocolate. I asked the server for a copy of the tasting menu (so I'd be able to write about it) and she offered to have Rick Bayless autograph it, which I thought was a nice touch. He signed it "Buen Proevcho, Rick Bayless".

    In the final analysis, I was very impressed by Topolobampo. My only criticism of my meal is that I would have enjoyed a bit more chile heat, especially in the shrimp dish. Although I did not taste any specific exotic or new flavors, I was blown away by the freshness and the quality of the ingredients. Bayless and his staff are not trying to impress you with a show or amaze you with things that you've never eaten before. They are trying to give you the best contemporary Mexican cooking that they possibly can, using only the finest ingredients, as local and as organic as possible, and they succeed.

    Check out Topolobampo at 445 N. Clark, 312-661-1434, reservations required, valet parking. Read more about Rick Bayless, Frontera Grill, and Topolobampo at http://www.fronterakitchens.com
    Last edited by eatchicago on October 17th, 2006, 11:36 am, edited 1 time in total.
  • Post #2 - February 24th, 2005, 9:44 am
    Post #2 - February 24th, 2005, 9:44 am Post #2 - February 24th, 2005, 9:44 am
    Thanks for the report.

    My wife and I have been aching to do this too (with wine pairings, especially after meeting the Frontera wine person a few months ago). For me, the few times I've called, Saturday was already booked. When did you go, and how far in advance did you book?
  • Post #3 - February 24th, 2005, 9:53 am
    Post #3 - February 24th, 2005, 9:53 am Post #3 - February 24th, 2005, 9:53 am
    We went the week before Valentine's Day and we booked via OpenTable.com about 3 weeks in advance. We had 8:30 Friday night reservations and the place was a third empty before 9:30.

    I have to say that I'm really glad that we did the wine pairings. The flavor compositions of the dishes were very diverse and the wine truly heightened the experience and brought out the best of their exceptional ingredients . Our server was very knowlegeable about the wines and gave us a nice introduction to each glass.

    Best,
    Michael / EC
  • Post #4 - February 24th, 2005, 2:16 pm
    Post #4 - February 24th, 2005, 2:16 pm Post #4 - February 24th, 2005, 2:16 pm
    Thanks for the reminder. Bayless' places are still great. Indeed, no single place gets mentioned to me more often by non-Chicagoans as worthy destination dining. I've had a few out of town freinds claim that they had some of the best meals of their lives there. I ascribe much of this praise to the revelation that comes with tasting scratch moles and masa for the first time, but the ingredients, techniques and vision can't be overlooked.

    VI, let me know if you find this to be the un-Arun.
  • Post #5 - February 24th, 2005, 8:38 pm
    Post #5 - February 24th, 2005, 8:38 pm Post #5 - February 24th, 2005, 8:38 pm
    I'm glad to hear you had a great time.

    The last time I was there a couple of years ago, perhaps it was an off day. While nothing was wrong, not a thing on my plate thrilled me, and the other three people with me felt the same way. Basically, "yeah it's good, but not x% of my paycheck good." It wasn't crowded, it wasn't a holiday, but perhaps the kitchen magic needed recharging. But this gave me a disincentive to come back again.

    And while there's truly hundreds of restaurants I want (need) to try, it's good to know that I can come back to an old favorite.
  • Post #6 - February 25th, 2005, 10:17 am
    Post #6 - February 25th, 2005, 10:17 am Post #6 - February 25th, 2005, 10:17 am
    The blog, AtOurTable coincidentally posted a review of Topolobampo this week as well,

    http://atourtable.blogspot.com/2005/02/ ... yless.html
  • Post #7 - May 18th, 2005, 9:57 pm
    Post #7 - May 18th, 2005, 9:57 pm Post #7 - May 18th, 2005, 9:57 pm
    JoelF wrote:While nothing was wrong, not a thing on my plate thrilled me, and the other three people with me felt the same way.


    Great summary to my dinner tonight. A group of 4 of us all had the tasting menu and left wondering what the hype was about. It was good, with some courses bordering on really good, but there was nothing truly exceptional or warranting the $75 prix fix (sp?). A definite dissapointment.

    The wine pairings were however incredible and salvaged the night.

    All in all a nice experience, but certainly nothing to write home about and not worthwhile financially given this city's other options. I'll stick with Chilpancingo the next time I'm jonesing this genre.
  • Post #8 - May 19th, 2005, 11:38 am
    Post #8 - May 19th, 2005, 11:38 am Post #8 - May 19th, 2005, 11:38 am
    Ralph Wiggum wrote:the $75 prix fix (sp?).


    prix fixe
  • Post #9 - June 13th, 2005, 12:17 am
    Post #9 - June 13th, 2005, 12:17 am Post #9 - June 13th, 2005, 12:17 am
    My choice for neighborhood restaurant is a 2 fer 1. Frontera Grill and Topolobampo are now more of a Chicago institution than a neigborhood restaurant. As GAF feels about Moto I have mixed feelings about mentioning a temple of cuisine as a neigborhood restaurant, which I think of as a ma & pa joint down the street you can stop in any time and have a nice, reasonably priced meal. However, along with Charlie Trotter and Jean Joho I believe that Rick Bayless helped place Chicago on the national culinary map. This alone deserves a plug. While you may not be willing or able to stroll into Topolobampo for an impromptu bite, there were many times I'd head to the bar at Frontera for a margarita, some sopes, and an entree and call it a night. Well maybe 2 margaritas(or 3,etc.).

    Frontera/Topolobampo
    445 N Clark St
    Chicago, IL 60610
    (312) 661-1434
  • Post #10 - June 13th, 2005, 12:33 am
    Post #10 - June 13th, 2005, 12:33 am Post #10 - June 13th, 2005, 12:33 am
    I have a bit of a love-hate relationship towards Fronteria (never been to Topo), but I think the reasons articuliated are excellent reasons for a GNR. Hear-hear (or second for those following Robert's Rules.)

    I do think eating at Frontera can be a hassle, and I feel there are some un-necessary upcharges. Push comes to shove, I think the oily mole at TLO is better than Frontera's more "clean" mole, there are better tortillas at places like La Quebrada, and other Mexican food around town that I just enjoy more. Still, Rick Bayless does so much right, and proof (I think) that some times credit is truly deserved.

    What I most appreciate about Fronteria is that it stands for the proposition that "ethnic" food can be good. And not good as in good for, but just plain good.

    I appreciate that Bayless works within the exisitng idiom of Mexican cookery. He creates original dishes but they all seem Mexican. He does not fuse or grasp at straws.

    I appreciate Bayless's committment to local and seasonal ingredients. This at times makes his dishes true to the spirit of Mexican cooking without being the same as Mexican cooking.

    Rob
  • Post #11 - June 13th, 2005, 10:19 am
    Post #11 - June 13th, 2005, 10:19 am Post #11 - June 13th, 2005, 10:19 am
    Andy,

    In the months before I was lucky enough to marry Ellen we took a Wednesday night class in the loop, 15-weeks worth. Our reward to ourselves, though admittedly I needed incentive more than she, after class was dinner at Frontera. 15-weeks in a row and not once did we weary of the menu, on the contrary, our culinary horizons were expanded with each subsequent meal.

    Though that was years before Topolobampo came to be, we have since celebrated any number of special occasions at Topo including 4-5 years running of their Like Water for Chocolate Valentines dinner, since discontinued. Topo is also where I had my first, of two, wine epiphanies A Gruner Veltliner, which tasted off by itself, the wine came slightly before the huitlacoche, but when combined with our huitlacoche appetizer the flavor combination was astounding.

    Another aspect of Frontera/Topo is the fact it's a restaurant of which Chicago can be proud. When I travel conversation often turn to food/restaurants and, invariably, fellow foodies ask about three or four restaurants, Frontera/Topolobampo included, always in a positive fashion.

    Do I think Frontera has it's flaws, of course, I rarely go for dinner nowadays as I am loath to wait in line for 50-minutes. Topo, yes it's a wonderful restaurant, but this over sized fellow took it off his Special Occasion list when they moved the tables close enough to read your neighbors menu.

    On the other hand, when I happen to drive past Frontera and see there is little, if any wait, my car seems to stop by it's own accord and each Valentines day I, hopefully, check with Topo to see if they reinstated Like Water for Chocolate.

    I'm very happy to Second RevrendAndy's nomination. In fact, I think Ellen and I will go to Frontera for dinner this Wednesday. :)

    Enjoy,
    Gary
    Sauce on the side, always, implied, axiomatic..........never a doubt, BBQ sauce without.

    Low & Slow
  • Post #12 - June 13th, 2005, 10:36 am
    Post #12 - June 13th, 2005, 10:36 am Post #12 - June 13th, 2005, 10:36 am
    For many years when I was traveling people in other cities who liked food would ask questions about Charlie Trotter and other restaurants in Chicago. Still happens, some. And my answer, for most of those years was, "Charlie used to be great, but now the whole experience is too intense and over the top for me. If you want to go enjoy the cooking of a great chef, there is this guy, Rick Bayless..."

    Rick is also a very likable guy who seems to be all about food and doing the right thing (tho I still do not exactly understand the BK commercials).

    Sure, it has all changed. I would not choose Topolobampo (where I have dined many times, but strangely never at Frontera, go figure) over many other places in Chicago, and I do not need to tell anyone about Rick Bayless any more.

    So I have a lot of love for the guy, and for what he has done for Chicago, food, and Mexican cuisine in America. But, is this a lifetime achievement award? Is the nomination for the place he holds in our hearts, our history and American cuisine, or for the restaurant as it exists today?

    Just curious, and interested in what others think about this, and whether it matters in the end.
    d
    Feeling (south) loopy
  • Post #13 - June 13th, 2005, 11:17 am
    Post #13 - June 13th, 2005, 11:17 am Post #13 - June 13th, 2005, 11:17 am
    dicksond wrote:Just curious, and interested in what others think about this, and whether it matters in the end.

    D,

    You post got me thinking about how Frontera/Topo has changed over the years and, after a moment of reflection, I say not at all, at least where it counts.

    Yes, Frontera is ridiculously crowded/busy, yes, Topo has positioned the tables so darn close that the average Midwesterner, much less myself, has trouble navigating, but where it counts, commitment to what they put on the table, if anything, they have improved.

    I imagine the thought has occurred to Rick Bayless, more than once, that the multitudes will still flock if he substitutes lesser quality ingredients, skips 5-6 steps in a 3-day mole, fires one of the best Sommeliers in the city and switches to a laminated placard of industrial wine, but he has resisted the temptations of Olive Gardenization.

    You're right, Rick Bayless is likeable, but, then again, so are his restaurants, I applaud his resistance to lowering the bar and (silently) screaming Show me the Money.

    Enjoy,
    Gary
    Sauce on the side, always, implied, axiomatic..........never a doubt, BBQ sauce without.

    Low & Slow
  • Post #14 - June 13th, 2005, 12:15 pm
    Post #14 - June 13th, 2005, 12:15 pm Post #14 - June 13th, 2005, 12:15 pm
    G Wiv wrote:
    dicksond wrote:Just curious, and interested in what others think about this, and whether it matters in the end.

    D,

    You post got me thinking about how Frontera/Topo has changed over the years and, after a moment of reflection, I say not at all, at least where it counts.


    Enjoy,
    Gary


    That's not true. Bayless has very much (and specifically) changed. About 5 years ago (give or take), he divided his resaurant. He re-named part of the restaurant Toplomboma what ever. He used one avenue to explore his more creative and pricier ambitions, he used the other portion to remain consistent with what he started. I think it was a great move. While (as noted) I have not eaten at Topo, I think the formation of Topo has allowed for him to keep Frontera Frontera, and I think that's good too.

    Rob
  • Post #15 - June 13th, 2005, 12:29 pm
    Post #15 - June 13th, 2005, 12:29 pm Post #15 - June 13th, 2005, 12:29 pm
    Vital Information wrote:That's not true. Bayless has very much (and specifically) changed. About 5 years ago (give or take), he divided his resaurant. He re-named part of the restaurant Toplomboma what ever. ...


    Actually, Topolobampo opened in 1989, two years after Frontera.
  • Post #16 - June 13th, 2005, 12:32 pm
    Post #16 - June 13th, 2005, 12:32 pm Post #16 - June 13th, 2005, 12:32 pm
    Amata wrote:
    Vital Information wrote:That's not true. Bayless has very much (and specifically) changed. About 5 years ago (give or take), he divided his resaurant. He re-named part of the restaurant Toplomboma what ever. ...


    Actually, Topolobampo opened in 1989, two years after Frontera.


    Really? I somewhat stand corrected. I think the gist of my point holds, but it does change things slightly. Thanks.

    :oops:
  • Post #17 - June 13th, 2005, 2:59 pm
    Post #17 - June 13th, 2005, 2:59 pm Post #17 - June 13th, 2005, 2:59 pm
    I’m going to buck the trend here. I oppose naming Frontera as an LTH “Great Neighborhood Restaurant”.

    Don’t get me wrong. I love Frontera, and Topolobampo too. I went to Frontera soon after moving here to Chicago in 1989, and have returned many times, going to Topolo too when I could. I’ve eaten alone at the counter at the back and with a group big enough to get a reservation; hung out for hours at the bar and nibbled on appetizers out at a sidewalk table. I’ve been there for Saturday brunch and weekday lunch. I’ve eaten my way through all the regular items on the menu, from the appetizer surtido to the chocolate pecan pie. I’ve taken many out of town visitors to either Frontera or Topolo. It’s one of my favorite places, and I love everything about Frontera except the wait.

    So, what’s my problem?

    I think the LTH GNRs should, in fact, be neighborhood restaurants, and Frontera is not that. It’s a world-renowned restaurant: anyone vaguely aware of food/restaurant news in this country knows of Bayless and Frontera Grill.

    Here’s how I view this new concept of LTH GNRs: it’s a way of telling a larger audience – one that is not reading our posts on the internet or stumbling across us via Google – some of the knowledge that we have, and that most others do not have. What do we know? We know about places like City Noor Kabab, Spoon Thai, Cafe Marianao. Places where you take your non-chowish friends and they say, “Wow! How did you find this place?”

    That’s the sort of place I think the GNR program should focus on. That’s the sort of knowledge that makes LTH (and CH in the old days) astonishing, and unlike anything else out there in the world of food writing/food guides. Let’s not dilute the list of amazing, not-yet-known places by including a restaurant that’s been nationally famous for at least 15 years.
  • Post #18 - June 13th, 2005, 3:06 pm
    Post #18 - June 13th, 2005, 3:06 pm Post #18 - June 13th, 2005, 3:06 pm
    G Wiv wrote:Your post got me thinking about how Frontera/Topo has changed over the years and, after a moment of reflection, I say not at all, at least where it counts.

    Vital Information wrote:That's not true. Bayless has very much (and specifically) changed. About 5 years ago (give or take), he divided his resaurant.

    Rob,

    My point was not that nothing has changed, what I was saying is that Bayless, Frontera, Topo have not changed where it counts. Attention to detail, focus on quality, care taken with what goes on the plate, level of service etc.

    I've never known you to be so literal, must be the 90° heat. :)

    Enjoy,
    Gary
    Sauce on the side, always, implied, axiomatic..........never a doubt, BBQ sauce without.

    Low & Slow
  • Post #19 - June 13th, 2005, 3:09 pm
    Post #19 - June 13th, 2005, 3:09 pm Post #19 - June 13th, 2005, 3:09 pm
    G Wiv wrote:
    G Wiv wrote:Your post got me thinking about how Frontera/Topo has changed over the years and, after a moment of reflection, I say not at all, at least where it counts.

    Vital Information wrote:That's not true. Bayless has very much (and specifically) changed. About 5 years ago (give or take), he divided his resaurant.

    Rob,

    My point was not that nothing has changed, what I was saying is that Bayless, Frontera, Topo have not changed where it counts. Attention to detail, focus on quality, care taken with what goes on the plate, level of service etc.

    I've never known you to be so literal, must be the 90° heat. :)

    Enjoy,
    Gary


    But I said it changed in a good way. 8)
  • Post #20 - June 13th, 2005, 4:17 pm
    Post #20 - June 13th, 2005, 4:17 pm Post #20 - June 13th, 2005, 4:17 pm
    Amata wrote:I’m going to buck the trend here. I oppose naming Frontera as an LTH “Great Neighborhood Restaurant”....

    I think the LTH GNRs should, in fact, be neighborhood restaurants, and Frontera is not that. It’s a world-renowned restaurant: anyone vaguely aware of food/restaurant news in this country knows of Bayless and Frontera Grill.

    Here’s how I view this new concept of LTH GNRs: it’s a way of telling a larger audience – one that is not reading our posts on the internet or stumbling across us via Google – some of the knowledge that we have, and that most others do not have. What do we know? We know about places like City Noor Kabab, Spoon Thai, Cafe Marianao. Places where you take your non-chowish friends and they say, “Wow! How did you find this place?”

    That’s the sort of place I think the GNR program should focus on. That’s the sort of knowledge that makes LTH (and CH in the old days) astonishing, and unlike anything else out there in the world of food writing/food guides. Let’s not dilute the list of amazing, not-yet-known places by including a restaurant that’s been nationally famous for at least 15 years.


    You make some excellent points. Many of them, you will not be surprised to hear, were discussed as this was put together. Contentious gang of 12 that we are, there was no consensus on this among the moderators. There was a consensus that we should not tell the posters what should and should not be considered, aside from the obvious limitation that it needs to be a place that sells food.

    I think the consensus was that we would prefer to choose places that meet exactly the criteria you outline. But, in the end, I am not sure why we should limit the selection to just them. If you look at the nominations, you will see that they predominantly are exactly what you describe. Does having a few that break that mold somehow violate or dilute what we are doing, or just add a little extra interest to it? I do not have an answer to that, but it is a discussion worth having, and I am glad you brought it up.

    What do others think, about this nomination in particular, and about what the criteria should be? To keep things orderly, please comment on this nomination here, and on the general criteria, here http://www.lthforum.com/bb/viewtopic.php?p=32020#32020

    d
    for the moderators
  • Post #21 - March 11th, 2007, 3:50 pm
    Post #21 - March 11th, 2007, 3:50 pm Post #21 - March 11th, 2007, 3:50 pm
    “The Great Neighborhood Restaurant awards honor restaurants all over the Chicagoland area which contribute to their neighborhoods’ and the city’s character by offering outstanding food, an authentic experience of their ethnic culture, and/or a welcoming (or in some cases, belovedly cranky) atmosphere for guests.”

    With that in mind, I am opposed to renewing the GNR award(s) for Frontera/Topolobampo. I have enormous respect for what Rick Bayless has done: for Mexican cuisine, for Chicago, and so forth. He is highly talented, enthusiastic, generous with his time, and very hardworking. And, as Antonius (and others) and I discussed in my review of Topolobampo, there may be multiple reasons why his restaurants have reached the state they have.

    Indeed, this is a painful post for me. I have eaten at both places and they long ranked among my favorites. I once recommended them without hesitation. Very reluctantly, then, I wrote about the lunch that caused me to stop visiting Frontera and about the dinner at Topolobampo that, despite great food, was an abysmal evening. I nevertheless think it’s worth recapping those posts briefly here.

    Even though we had an early (6:15) reservation, Topolobampo was already packed on a Saturday evening. We were shoehorned into our table by someone from the maitre d’s staff with bloodless efficiency and an artificially welcoming smile. Shortly thereafter, we were then greeted by a combative, arrogant server who seemed offended when we declined to order martinis to start. The evening went downhill from there. When she deigned to speak to us, she was offended by our temerity at ignoring her recommendations. Every few minutes throughout the evening—and I say that without exaggeration—I was bumped or stepped on by other patrons, servers, and busboys. No one did it on purpose; the place was so overcrowded with tables that it was impossible not to hit someone every time you moved. An inevitable effect of this overcrowding was the noise level: we couldn’t converse without raising our voices and it’s hard to relax and enjoy yourself when you can’t hear across a two-top.

    Our food that night was excellent. But a great neighborhood restaurant—heck, any great restaurant—is about much more than the food: the atmosphere, the service, the “vibe,” if you will. The GNR experience does not include truculent servers. It does not include having to strain to hear or be heard. It does not include being so wedged into your spot that constant bumping is inevitable. If I can’t move, can’t converse, am insulted and assaulted simply because I’m there, I won’t return, no matter how good the food. I can’t and won’t recommend such a place to others. Given the superb restaurant Topolobampo once was, this is more than a shame. It’s a completely avoidable shame.

    Topolobampo:
    Outstanding food—yes
    Authentic experience of their ethnic culture—not really
    Welcoming atmosphere—not even remotely

    Frontera is arguably worse, since the food isn’t excellent across the board. Most, but not all, of the dishes were good. But they were no better than that. To choose a single example: the sopa azteca was watery and oversalted. I could select different dishes from each of my previous visits as well. The point is that the food is inconsistent. You can depend on something not being good enough. Then there’s the pricing. Most entrees are now well into the mid-teens and lunch for two was nearly $80. A place that now caters largely to tourists, they can obviously get away with this. Frontera draws them in like flies and the place was packed. Which brings up the noise issue, again. Why should I have to shout to be heard? The room is filled with tables and, if not quite as jam-packed as Topolobampo (being bumped was not a routine part of the experience here), the sound level is too high. Service was competent, but no more. Warm, outgoing, genuinely friendly service is a thing of the past in my recent experiences at Frontera. Servers are (usually) knowledgeable and efficient, but to earn a GNR designation, knowledge and efficiency should be starting points, not the sum of what’s good.

    Although none of these flaws is a deal-killer in itself, taken together a packed room, good but not better food, competent service, an overloud room, and exorbitant pricing, all add up to “why should I recommend this place for renewal of GNR status?” There are too many other places that care enough to get all of this right.

    It truly grieves me to post this about Frontera—a place that I've recommended countless times over the years. But I cannot see returning until the empire declines and common sense returns.

    Frontera:
    Outstanding food—no
    Authentic experience of their ethnic culture—neutral
    Welcoming atmosphere—no

    As I said, our food was excellent at Topolobampo. But it is no longer excellent at Frontera and even excellent food, anywhere, simply isn’t enough. In a post explaining the aim of this program, ddickson described the GNR designation as recognizing “places that provide a food experience that is distinctly ‘better than the rest.’” The experiences at both Frontera and Topolobampo are no longer “better than the rest”—they are too crowded, too mediocre (service), too loud, and in the case of Frontera at least, too expensive. If I were to consider returning to either—which, for the time being, I refuse to do—I’d want to look forward eagerly to going. Right now, I’d dread it.

    ddickson, responding to the initial nomination, encapsulated my feelings nicely: “So I have a lot of love for the guy, and for what he has done for Chicago, food, and Mexican cuisine in America. But, is this a lifetime achievement award? Is the nomination for the place he holds in our hearts, our history and American cuisine, or for the restaurant as it exists today?” Bayless can and does earn my admiration and gratitude. But I won’t be eating at his restaurants again any time soon and I cannot, in good conscience, vote for renewal of the GNR award.
    Gypsy Boy

    "I am not a glutton--I am an explorer of food." (Erma Bombeck)
  • Post #22 - March 12th, 2007, 1:49 pm
    Post #22 - March 12th, 2007, 1:49 pm Post #22 - March 12th, 2007, 1:49 pm
    Gypsy Boy,

    You make a compelling case. Thanks for taking the time to write this up.

    While it pains me to say it, I have to agree.

    Best,
    Michael
  • Post #23 - March 12th, 2007, 4:05 pm
    Post #23 - March 12th, 2007, 4:05 pm Post #23 - March 12th, 2007, 4:05 pm
    And since you quoted me, and I already had these concerns, it should be no surprise that I agree. I imagine Topolobampo could be a very nice place to have a wonderful dinner on a Tuesday, and I may well go back there one of these days. But I would avoid it otherwise.

    A friend of my brothers is in town for the NRA show. Has a long track record in fine regional Mexican cuisine, and is planning to dine there tomorrow for the first time - will see if I can get a report.

    Like CT's, Pizzeria Uno, Wrigley Field (gratuitous shot at Cub Fans, but not really true), etc. these places have now entered that class of "you gotta go once so you can say you have been." Would you recommend them as among the best food of any kind at any price in Chicago? I doubt it. Would you recommend them as the most interesting and creative fine Mexican dining in Chicago? Probably not, though Topo is still probably in that group. Would you recommend them as being among the best places to enjoy authentic, well-prepared, and unusual Mexican regional specialties? For me, I doubt they would even be in the top 20 any more for this.

    To some degree, the world around it has caught up with Topo/Frontera, to the benefit of everyone who enjoys and enjoys exploring Mexican cuisine. And Rick Bayless deserves a lot of credit for his role in making this happen.

    Now let's all sit back and picture a world that has caught up with Moto... :shock: :shock: :!:
    d
    Feeling (south) loopy
  • Post #24 - March 16th, 2007, 9:14 am
    Post #24 - March 16th, 2007, 9:14 am Post #24 - March 16th, 2007, 9:14 am
    This blog entry from the San Francisco Chronicle's Michael Bauer was posted on eGullet:

    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/blogs/sfg ... y_id=14321

    Not that his view will change anyone's mind here, but I found it an interesting alternate perspective.

    (Bauer had three or four other Chicago entries on his blog, covering Alinea, Avenues, Avec, and Blakbird, and concluding:

    I came away appreciating how far the food has come in Chicago in the last decade, and I can see why it's received so much publicity. The spirit is fresh and inventive and the food is more flamboyant than you'll normally find in San Francisco or New York. Still, I found the lure of unusual techniques and dramatic pairings eclipsed the food itself.


    For what it's worth.)
  • Post #25 - March 16th, 2007, 1:52 pm
    Post #25 - March 16th, 2007, 1:52 pm Post #25 - March 16th, 2007, 1:52 pm
    Aaron Deacon wrote:This blog entry from the San Francisco Chronicle's Michael Bauer was posted on eGullet:

    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/blogs/sfg ... y_id=14321

    Not that his view will change anyone's mind here, but I found it an interesting alternate perspective.

    (Bauer had three or four other Chicago entries on his blog, covering Alinea, Avenues, Avec, and Blakbird, and concluding:

    I came away appreciating how far the food has come in Chicago in the last decade, and I can see why it's received so much publicity. The spirit is fresh and inventive and the food is more flamboyant than you'll normally find in San Francisco or New York. Still, I found the lure of unusual techniques and dramatic pairings eclipsed the food itself.


    For what it's worth.)


    Okay, specifically regarding Frontera - writeups like this are why the place is so popular and packed. And if one is from some place without a massive Mexican population and a food culture of authentic, regional Mexican cuisine, as well as haute Mexican (tho Chilpancingo was a big loss) one should be quite impressed by Frontera. But just for the dishes he mentions, there are how many places in Chicago that do it just as well now? More than a few, I think. Now, admittedly the GNRs are not comparative so Frontera could still be great, but...

    I could not find the context of the other quote, so I can only guess where he was dining and what he was referring to, and it has nothing to do with Frontera/Topo, does it? It does however speak to the difficulty of generalizing about the cuisine of a city based on one or a couple of brief visits. I do not think molecular cuisine defines Chicago dining, or even Chicago fine dining, but it is the area where Chicago is most significant nationally right now. Anyway, if you just visited Alinea, Tru, Moto, and Avenues, that is a fair comment and some of those chefs might even read the comment and say it shows they were successful.
    d
    Feeling (south) loopy
  • Post #26 - March 16th, 2007, 4:44 pm
    Post #26 - March 16th, 2007, 4:44 pm Post #26 - March 16th, 2007, 4:44 pm
    dicksond wrote:I could not find the context of the other quote, so I can only guess where he was dining and what he was referring to, and it has nothing to do with Frontera/Topo, does it?


    You're right, sorry for the digression. The other places are those listed in my last post.
  • Post #27 - March 16th, 2007, 4:57 pm
    Post #27 - March 16th, 2007, 4:57 pm Post #27 - March 16th, 2007, 4:57 pm
    Aaron Deacon wrote:
    dicksond wrote:I could not find the context of the other quote, so I can only guess where he was dining and what he was referring to, and it has nothing to do with Frontera/Topo, does it?


    You're right, sorry for the digression. The other places are those listed in my last post.


    Sorry I managed to miss that detail in your post - glad to see I almost guessed right. No problem with digressing - it always struck me as one of the charms of LTHForum.

    Anyway, based on that list, and adding Frontera into the places he visited, it seems his comment only applies to Alinea - that makes it a little misleading. Pining for the simple purity of Bay Area cuisine, I guess :D .
    d
    Feeling (south) loopy
  • Post #28 - March 16th, 2007, 5:27 pm
    Post #28 - March 16th, 2007, 5:27 pm Post #28 - March 16th, 2007, 5:27 pm
    dicksond wrote:Anyway, based on that list, and adding Frontera into the places he visited, it seems his comment only applies to Alinea - that makes it a little misleading. Pining for the simple purity of Bay Area cuisine, I guess :D .


    He meant it more broadly than Alinea. Here are the full post and the blog main page if you're interested in scrolling to the other Chicago entries.
  • Post #29 - November 11th, 2008, 12:48 pm
    Post #29 - November 11th, 2008, 12:48 pm Post #29 - November 11th, 2008, 12:48 pm
    Wife and I are going tonight for our 25th. What should we make sure we don't miss?
  • Post #30 - November 11th, 2008, 12:54 pm
    Post #30 - November 11th, 2008, 12:54 pm Post #30 - November 11th, 2008, 12:54 pm
    dukesdad wrote:What should we make sure we don't miss?


    The LTH Search feature. Spelling it Topolobambo will get you better results, though your way gets some hits too..

    Happy Anniversary!
    ...defended from strong temptations to social ambition by a still stronger taste for tripe and onions." Screwtape in The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis

    Fuckerberg on Food

Contact

About

Team

Advertize

Close

Chat

Articles

Guide

Events

more