Fancy Mexican: Topolobampo in Chicago

There were a few recommendations that we received from a colleague of S, one of them being the Blue Ribbon, which we enjoyed when in NY. So when he said that his strongest suggestion was Topolobampo in Chicago- we locked it in.

Being from a country that’s not so versed in Mexican food – especially the high end nosh – we were pretty excited about tryingย Rick Bayliss‘ food. The first fine dining Mexican restaurant in North America, if not the world – Topolobampo is connected with three restaurants that are all part of the Rick Bayliss brand and all sit next to each other. Xoco is the street food restaurant, and The Frontera Grill is the busier, casual option that has queues out the front from 5pm when it opens. Reviews repeatedly speak of the rudeness of the staff, but no one had commented about the decor. AWFUL. Stuck in the DYI ethnic sponging of the 1980’s, the restaurant needs a facelift. Desperately.

We also asked for a nice table. When I was running a restaurant I always made an effort to oblige this request. I don’t know what they define as a good table at Topolobampo, but I am pretty sure the one right by the door wasn’t it. Oh, well. It did allow us to photograph and be tourists in private, for which I was grateful.

The style of service also seems a bit stuck in the 80’s. Maybe that is what they were talking about when I read the online reviews. It is stuffy. No smiles and jokes coming too freely, but we did manage to pull one out of our server. Actually, it wasn’t really a joke, more a looser comment. But I am not picky, I’ll take that.

The food peaked at the beginning, and then tailed off at the end. The two ceviche that we chose were great, and so very distinct from each other. Ceviche Tucateco was served in a retro (again!) martini glass with tortilla crisps. It was sweet from the orange, with large tubes of calamari and shrimp.

The Ceviche Verde was much more interesting with Tuna, Chimichurri (a mexican take on a salsa verde with chile and roasted garlic), roasted fennel, and fennel pollen, and cucumber. Really good.

Our middle snack of Chile Ancho Rellano de Chorizo was very nice. An amazingly tender loin of lamb sat on a bed of ‘porky red bean sauce’, but the most suprisingly yummy element was a pickled ancho chile that was filled with a crispy homemade chorizo. Happy days!

Then the Mains came. I don’t know why, but I don’t often like mains. Big in size and flavour I either get bored or too ‘riched out’ before the end, but feel obliged to finish. My Puerco en Pipien de Maiz Azul: Braised Pork shoulder and belly with chille, puree of white corn, black beans and avocado leaf; garlicky braised quelites and sweet corn “air” ย was dry. Even with the “air”. The flavours were nice, but on the sweeter side, which after a few bites grew tiring.

S had the Maricos al Mojo (Maine Lobster and scallops with mojo; fermented black & white garlic, olive oil, chipotle, lime. Both served with warm tortilla’s for the table, which we used to make very expensive tacos. The scallops were amazingly creamy. Again I thought the lobster was a tad overdone, but S munched it all up without any complaints.

Maybe my ignorance of Mexican food is showing but we had a few $3 taco’s the following day at a great bar we found in the Wicker Park district called Big Star, which were much tastier than the Haute versions from the previous night. I am glad we went to Topolobampo to try fancy Mexican, but from my experience so far, I just don’t think it’s a cuisine that works being too fussed over. Give me a $3 taco any day.

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