As promised in my Chicago trip recap part 2, I will devote a whole post to my meal at Topolobampo, Rick Bayless’ fine-dining restaurant. S, his sister V, and I were really excited to visit, and yes, we still wanted Mexican food after eating a huge meal at Frontera Grill just a day before.
Unlike most other fine-dining establishments that we’ve visited, one thing that we loved about Topolobampo was its lively atmosphere. There was music, plenty of lighting (do I hear a collective “yay!” from my fellow food bloggers?), and a nice, steady stream of chatter. It wasn’t noisy by any means, but there wasn’t a stifling quietness that often accompanies nice restaurants.
Couldn’t resist starting off with some drinks! V had a cucumber-lime drink (non-alcoholic), and I got a Topolo margarita – both were really nice and refreshing.
Their course system is very similar to that of Gary Danko – instead of separating the dishes into appetizers, entrées, and desserts, the items are separated into categories such as “Vibrant”, “Fresh”, “Complex”, etc. You can choose from any of the categories to make a 3, 5, or 7-course dinner. There’s also a Chef’s suggested “Perfect 7”. The three of us decided to each get a 5-course dinner, which is priced at $90, and share everything.
We got an amuse bouche to start… I wish I could remember what this all entailed, but I believe these were spiced melons.
Shortly after, we were presented with our first courses:
I had to look up what “sikil pak” was – apparently it’s a Mexican pumpkin-seed dip, and I loved it! It had a lightly spicy kick and was really nice and creamy. The summer tomatoes were also really fresh and delicious.
The halibut was quite fresh, but I felt that the marinade was starting overpower the delicate fish. The crispy capers were amazing, though.
Again, I felt that the scallops were being overpowered a bit by the tart tomatillo salsa. However, I thought that the combo of the dried scallop with the fresh worked really well.
Moving on to course 2…
This dish pretty much summed up all of my favorite vegetables: mushrooms, corn, pumpkin seeds, serrano peppers. So my reaction to this was basically, YES. It did not disappoint.
Goat barbacoa was one of the things that S’s labmate, who is from Mexico, recommended us to try if we had a chance. We really liked this – the goat had its characteristic gamey taste but just enough of it, the broth and flavors were rich and hearty. I’d never been a big fan of garbanzo beans, but these were actually quite good.
Chile en Nogada is Mexico’s national dish – it’s basically a stuffed roasted chile with a nutty, creamy sauce and pomegranates – the colors are the same as the Mexican flag, and the flavors are quite traditional. I’ve never had this dish before, but this was one of my favorites of the night – the sauce was simply amazing. It was so flavorful, and everything was really well-balanced. I was quite sad to discover that the photo turned out blurry, and it doesn’t do justice at all to how wonderful of a dish this was.
Course 3 arrived shortly thereafter:
This was the first mole of the night – we knew that Rick Bayless’ moles were famous, and that there are many different types. This yellow mole (more like orange, huh) was actually pretty light and went well with the black cod.
S had never eaten venison before and decided to try it out – he ended up not liking it very much because it’s quite a gamey meat. I thought that it was one of the better venison dishes that I’ve had before – the black pepper-pasilla chile sauce was delicious! – but I do agree that it was really gamey. I guess serving it relatively rare doesn’t help, but that’s the best way to maintain the meat’s tenderness.
I thought this was an elevated version of fries with ketchup… Is that horrible? The mini-potatoes were served with skin-on, which was actually a bit tough. I liked the goat cheese, but felt that the tomato-based chileatole was a bit too tart for me. The radish and kohlrabi helped lighten it up a bit, but I wished that there was just a bit more of those.
Onto the 4th course:
Unfortunately, I don’t remember much of this dish, except that the lamb was cooked perfectly. The sauce wasn’t too memorable to me, but I do believe that I must have liked it because macadamia nuts and jalapenos sound like an awesome combination in my head right now.
The chicken was quite tender (although not particularly smoky), and the crispy sweetbreads reminded me of karaage or Taiwanese-style crispy chicken, haha. S and V were quite impressed that somehow, we were able to find similarities between a Mexican dish and a Japanese one – even the savory-sweet onion-raisin chutney reminded us of Asian flavors!
Finally, this was the star of the entire night, the famous carne asada in mole negro. Mole negro is one of the most complex moles, and this version consists of at least 29 ingredients and takes three days to make. The beef was cooked perfectly, and that mole sauce was so rich and luxurious. The three of us ate in silence, mopping up every last bit of the mole sauce with the fresh tortillas that were provided.
After that amazing mole, it was time for some dessert!
The crispy crepes and toasted meringue were my favorite parts of this dessert. The whole wheat crumble was a bit too tough, though.
I’m actually not a huge fan of fruits in desserts (with the exception of citrus fruits), so I wasn’t as excited by this dessert. The tequila caramel was pretty strong, though – it actually gave it an overall bitter taste, which I didn’t like very much even though I love tequila.
This was my favorite dessert out of the three, because it was the lightest and most refreshing. The lime pudding cake was really amazing – I would love to try and recreate it at home.
After the meal, we were presented with house-made chocolates and fruit chews, both of which were really good. The chocolate was on the acidic side, which actually worked quite well with the gummy candies!
Overall, what can I say? Topolobampo was an amazing experience. I am so glad that we were able to eat here, even after Frontera Grill and Xoco. The flavors are quite different from the Baja California-style Mexican food that we get here in San Diego – I’d say that they’re heartier and bolder. It was truly a memorable meal, and even now, more than a month later, S and I still talk about that mole negro. I’m not sure when we would have the chance to return to this place, but I highly recommend it if you’re in Chicago!
445 N. Clark St, Chicago, IL 60654