I'm in Chicago for the holiday and we sometimes go out for dinner the night before Thanksgiving with friends. This year was not an exception. We headed to Topolabampo (weirdly, we sat at the booth that's in the picture you see on that link). Rick Bayless (if you're not familiar) is another celebrity chef (via PBS) with a retail empire, but as far as I know, only two restaurants, both in Chicago (connected, in fact). His focus is on authentic regional Mexican food. We chose the more upscale of the two restaurants for dinner.
We had a drink at the bar. I'm assured the margaritas are delicious. I thought they were way too boozy, but then again I'm more of a wine drinker. Too boozy might be a good thing if you're not me. We were then seated. Every table in the place was full. I was anticipating a wonderful meal.
I have to pause to share their culinary philosophy with you, as I think it's awesome and it's what every restaurant should be striving for...
'Our goal is to serve you seasonal, sustainably-raised vegetables, meat and poultry; fish from sustainable fisheries. We support local, artisanal farmers.'
THANK YOU, Rick Bayless.
Five of the six diners at our table ordered tasting menus. They averaged about $90/person for a 5 course meal. Three people ordered the 'celebration menu' and two of us ordered the 'mole menu'. The last diner had a ceviche appetizer and a sea bass risotto. May I just say I was not said last diner, and I'm sorry for it.
The celebration menu consisted of a ceviche, mini tacos, lobster, lamb chops and a granita for dessert. I'll try to be brief. The cevice was tuna and it had all sorts of bits and bobs in it....pine nuts, dried berries and all sorts of stuff. It sounds weird (and I wish I'd brought a notepad to write stuff down, but I didn't so you'll have to bear with me), but it really was brilliant.
Next came the mini tacos. They were really more rolled than your traditional (or at least to Americans) u-shape. Theywere filled with huitlacoche, parsnips and black truffle, served with an organic tomato broth and topped with crunchy pickled vegetables and avocado. These were a hit with everyone. I know huitlacoche is sometimes strong and freaky (though my experience with it is limited) but this dish was perfectly composed and disappeared fast.
Next was the lobster. It was nicely presented but the flavor profile was very, very heavy on vanilla. I understand what he was trying to do, but this was literally 1/2 of a lobster doused in vanilla butter. It was too sweet and it just didn't work.
The lamb on the other hand was delicious and perfectly cooked. It was very nicely trimmed and it just melted in my mouth. It was served with local, roasted fall vegetables which were perfectly done. The pumpkin-chilisomethingorother sauce however was not terribly well matched with the lamb and I wish it wasn't on the plate at all.
Dessert on the celebration menu would be best left in the kitchen. I was so distressed by the granita (which can only be described as a sickly sweet grenadine syrup icee) that I don't even remember what else was on the plate, which was a shame. The presentation was beautiful, but the enjoyment ended there.
On to the mole menu. I'm not going to go through each dish, as it will just get repetitive. Mole is a wonderful tradition and a very complex sauce to make (not that I've been brave enough to try!) and I respect it tremendously as well as enjoy it in moderation. That said, five courses of mole in a row is just excessive and stupid. For something this complex, do you really think a diner can appreciate the nuances of five different mole sauces served one after the other after the other? No, Rick. They can't.
The highlight of the mole menu was the savory red chile-chocolate tamal filled with wild mushrooms, mole poblano, homemade goat cheese (indescribeably good), muscovado "jellies" and watercress salad. This dish knocked my socks off. I'm guessing any of the dishes individually would be enjoyable, but again, five moles in a row? Dumb.
Service was pretty chilly and efficient at first. It eventually warmed up, but I think that was after we were $350 in to the wine list (probably by the third course...!). The space is nice; elegant and understated. The servers are competent, though I have to say there were a few occasions where I would ask about some specific aspect of the dish and they would not know the answer. (I should point out that I asked a LOT of questions, and many if not most of them were answered with confidence, but the price point at which we were dining should demand intimate and thorough menu and dish composition knowledge).
In all, I was disappointed (despite a few highlights). The ingredients were exceptional but the execution and the marriage of courses was not. The service was only average for a restaurant of this caliber...or maybe I should say cost. We went to Charlie Trotters the night before Thanksgiving a few years ago and spent almost exactly the same amount of money per diner and it was the most memorable meal (and service) I have ever had in my life. I would like my money back for this one. Or at least half of it.
If you want Rick Bayless food, buy a cookbook or go to Frontera Grill. Topolabampo is better left alone.