Topolobampo is the white table cloth sibling to Frontera Grill, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. The restaurant has a Michelin Star and Chef Rick Bayless has garnered many awards, including the prestigious James Beard Award for Best Chef: Midwest. Topolobampo is the first and only Mexican restaurant in the world to be awarded a Michelin Star since Mexican restaurants simply do not benefit from the cultural legitimacy guaranteed to French or New American restaurants. Chef Rick Bayless did not have a culinary background, and his interest in Mexican culture predated his interest in the gastronomy. While earning his doctorate in anthropology at University of Michigan, Bayless studied in Mexico and became absorbed in its cuisine. He then quit his graduate studies and focused his energies on becoming a chef.
I had been multiple times for lunch and was impressed by the cuisine and the décor but felt that the service clashed with the nuanced complexity of the cuisine. It often radiated a casual enthusiasm that threatened to undo the precision and focus of the cuisine and decor. The service at Topolobampo is especially important because much of the restaurant’s value lies in treating Mexican cuisine—often relegated to huge, generic menus—with a sense of seriousness not often seen in Mexican restaurants. I was curious to visit for dinner in order to explore the relationship between the experience at lunch versus dinner. The dinner service also offers the allure of tasting menu options, carrying the potential for both a greater scope and a more focused intensity.
Dinner reservations at Topolobampo are among the most difficult in Chicago—almost on par with Alinea. Calling in mid-January for a table for 2, I was only able to secure 9:00 reservations for Thursday, March 2, and there was no availability during the weekend. Arriving 15 minutes early, my companion and I were warmly greeted at the reception counter (which it shares with Frontera Grill) and taken to our two-top underneath a Mexican folk painting. Although many might object to the fact that Topolobampo shares its reception desk with Frontera Grill, I feel that the restaurant benefits from this through the sense of contrast generated with its more casual sibling. Frontera Grill is more animated, with yellow walls and folk masks adorning the walls, and the fact that one must walk through it before arriving at Topolobampo enhances the drama of entering the more upscale sibling. While not as bright, Topolobampo is still visually overwhelming through the abundance of Mexican folk paintings adorning the walls. The artwork references a number of genres, including murals, primitivism, and magical realism. While it may well have impressed in the context of a museum, the lively color of the paintings was especially affective through its mediation with the inherent seriousness (and lack of color) of the white tablecloths; an attribute benefits from the interaction with its opposite. It is standard for artwork to be exhibited in restaurants, but the color of these paintings is especially vibrant and striking, yet counterbalanced by the deep blue color of the water glasses and the overhanging lights. Examples of the paintings include the following (taken from restaurant website):
After being seated, the hostess presented menus, describing in detail each of the three tasting menu options: Topolo Classics, consisting of longstanding menu items; Winter Beach Vacation, featuring more tropical flavors; and Winter Farmer’s Market, emphasizing seasonally appropriate produce and proteins.
Shortly thereafter, we were greeted by our server, an enthusiastic young man with a stunning knowledge of the menu. I chose the Winter Farmer’s Market option. The server’s knowledge demonstrated a thorough exactitude somewhat absent during the lunch service. His ability to initiaite conversation surrounding the menu represented a heightened intimacy that—perhaps due to the abundance of business meetings taking place during lunch services—was never established in prior visits. The heightened precision of the dinner service also manifested through the tasting menu options—by ascribing thematic titles (beyond the generic “seasonal tasting menu” ascribed to most restaurant tasting menus) to each, the kitchen demonstrated an ability to think both analytically and narratively about cuisine, legitimizing Mexican cuisine as a serious gastronomic discourse.
The music is not indigenous to Mexico but instead reflects various Caribbean cultures, including Puerto Rican and Cuban. Replacing the traditional Mexican mariachi music with salsa beats is novel and calls attention to itself. It resists becoming ersatz. and remains vibrant without the fiesta-cantina resonance characteristic to Mexican restaurant soundtracks. The unusual artwork and music foreground both sight and sound, utilizing the sensorial heterogeneity of the restaurant as a spectatorial experience.
Our first offering from the kitchen was a housemade guacamole that was made with chunks of pinneapple and topped with shreds of raw saffron. It was paired with slices of cucumber and raw turnip. Topolobampo’s iteration of chips and guacamole demonstrated an ability to operate creatively within the normative convention of the classic Mexican starter of chips and guacamole. The pinneapple imparted a chilled coolness while the saffron added heat. The yellow pinneapple and red saffron imparted an aesthetic dynamism to the monochromatic light-green coloration of the guacamole. Further, pairing the guacamole with turnips generated a complex flavor interplay in which the acidic turnips cut throught the smooth fattiness of the avocado. Juxtaposed against a menu proper laden with novel menu items, the opening starter represented the ability to experiment within the conventions of standard Mexican restaurant offerings.
For my first course, I was presented with Envuelto de Trucha Ahumada: smoked rainbow trout wrapped in avocado and paired with trout roe, winter greens, pickled garlic and wheatberries. The smoked trout and roe refer to the conventions not of Mexican restaurants but instead of fine dining, in which caviar services and smoked fish often represent the opening course of a tasting menu. Appropriate to the winter farmer’s market theme, the winter greens imparted a light bitterness that complemented the brininess of the roe and the soft fattiness of the fish and avocado. Similar to char, trout is also a fish seasonally appropriate to the winter season. The dominant green coloration of the dish reflected a disguised complexity that hid the supportive interplay between flavor contrasts.
Transitioning to the second course, I was brought Sopa de Faisan y Tortilla: smoked pheasant soup in pheasant consomme with ancho chiles, avocado, panela cheese, crema noodles, and crunchy tortilla. There was a flavor contrast between the smoky gaminess of the pheasant with the light coolness of the avocado and a textural juxtaposition between the soft cheese, pheasant, and avocado against the crispy tortilla.
The first of the savory courses consisted of Pescado en Chileatole: seared Texas redfish,red poblano chileatole, suckling pig bacon, roasted potatoes, turnips, and winter spinach (unfortunately the picture quality is pretty awful). The spinach was described by the server as the highlight of the dish and was instrumental in assimilating it within the narrative of the market-themed menu. Poured tableside, the pungent chileatole supplied olfactory depth, and Topolobampo fully utilizes the affective capabilities of bright color and intense smell in generating memorable taste. A food runner delivered a bowl of housemade corn tortillas as an accompaniment and the head server took the opportunity to introduce the gentleman, who has been with the restaurant for many years. The balance between the meticulousness yet gregarious inclusiveness of all facets of the service staff demonstrates a synchronization between vibrancy and precision that resonated throughout the restaurant as a whole.
For the savory meat course, I was given Chivo en Pipian de Nuez Negro: grilled goat chop with banana leaf-steamed beet and goat tamalon, black walnut pipian, saffron fennel and pickled butternut squash ribbons. Rick Bayless has described his cuisine as constructed around bright flavors; while using a visual adjective to describe a culinary style is somewhat unusual, his statement is nonetheless appropriate. The pink color of the goat meat, the burnt orange sauce, and the orange-yellow butternut squash are not only bright in color but also characterize the intense yet light flavors of the dish. The vibrant coloration of the cuisine was enhanced by the deeply saturated colors of the paintings on the wall. While the dish’s recipe and the painting of the artwork were constructed in isolation from each other, the dining experience as a whole benefited from the interaction with both objects, another example of the intermodal potential of the dining experience.
Prior to dessert, I was brought complimentary Oaxacan hot chocolate; my companion had ordered wine pairings, so it was thoughtful of the server to bring me a dessert beverage while my companion received his dessert wine. It was terrific and had a satisfying complexity between the creaminess of the milk and the bitter dark chocolate. The dessert course consisted of Duraznos y Crema: a ricotta tart with honeyed ricotta ice cream and matsumoto peaches 4 ways. Topolobampo does not serve a pallette cleanser or cheese course to ease the transition to dessert, so this dish prevented a harsh contrast from the final savory course through incorporating cheese and fruit, yet supplementing both with the creaminess of the tart. I sipped the hot chocolate during the dessert and while the beverage provided added depth I did feel that it deprived the dessert of its inherent lightness. Following completion, we were brought a tray of mignardises, notably featuring a boozy chocolate and a passionfruit pate de fruit.
Synchronization between sensory perceptions is a fundamental aspect of a rewarding dining experience. Each of the senses must work together in a mutually supportive way. However, synchronization is also impossible to define: an enjoyable dining experience involves interplay between taste, sight, sound, and smell, yet one cannot assign a particular theory for exactly the right balance between the senses, and therein lies both the challenging nature of restaurants and the reason why they are not often recognized as challenging. While taste is generally understood as the privileged sensory perception, the intermodality of the dining experience designates taste as largely influenced by—and in many ways the sum total of—its interaction with other senses. A restaurant does not have the legibility of the plot scenario characteristic of novels or narrative films. Instead, it represents an object without a center–it is ungraspable and envelopes the diner. The relational structure of the restaurant paradoxically permits two modes of reception: it either overwhelmes as an object of study (provided one recognizes the confluence between the senses) or is nonexistent (if the diner focuses only on the food). Ultimately, Topolobampo capably succeeds in either mode of reception: the complacent diner remains satisfied through its tasty cuisine, while the diner sensitive to the interplay between sense perceptions is rewarded through the supportive sensory balance that is achieved.