(Topolobampo dining room)
With the closing of Ria, Topolobampo is now my favorite Chicago restaurant; during my recent trip to Chicago, it was only natural that I go there for lunch. By my count, this was my sixth meal at Topolo over the past year. All but one of these meals were for lunch (my lone dinner there, in which I had one of their tasting menus, was documented in this blog), and my relationship with the restaurant pertains more to the lunch service. Lunch at a Michelin-starred restaurant raises the issue of exactly how much is expected of them, and whether it need be representative of the restaurant as a whole—during my lunch at Blackbird, the maitre-d went so far as to say that their lunch service wasn’t an accurate picture of the restaurant.
Perhaps the best endorsement I can give to Topolobampo is that the restaurant is different at lunch yet equally rewarding. The room is brighter, patrons are dressed a bit more casual, and there is no tasting menu option. There are always a number of touristy-type diners, likely due to Rick Bayless’ media ventures and line of supermarket products. Consequently, the clientele is a bit like Alinea in that it’s not as much of a fine dining crowd; it’s clear that people view Bayless and Achatz’s ventures like tourist attractions, no different from visiting the Sears Tower, for example. However, the lunch and dinner menus share a number of similar items; this makes the lunch service a better value since a)the portions are sized similarly and b) the prices are just over half that of the dinner menu. Where the dinner service has a more identifiable special occasion feel, the lunch service blends the spectacular and the everyday in a particularly alluring manner.
I understand that there are those who criticize Topolo for sharing the building with Frontera Grill, although I have always enjoyed the layout as it projects the contrast between the two restaurants in a way that highlights the particular virtues of each; with its bright colors Frontera has a more vibrant feel, while Topolo is more serious and dramatic. The masks and sculptural art at Frontera are replaced by folk paintings at Topolo. I especially enjoy how the elite primitivism of the paintings corresponds with the feel of the cuisine, as it’s rare to see the artwork and fare synchronized to such a strong degree.
The lunch menu changes every month although a few iconic dishes never leave the menu, such as the Borrego en Mole Negro, the leg of lamb with black mole. I have enjoyed this on past visits and ordered this as a main dish; as a starter I went with Jaiba de Elote des Estilos: corn flan with Alaskan king crab, red chile esquites of pozole and fresh corn, lime mayo, epazote, and anejo cheese.
The first item to arrive was complimentary chips and guacamole, of which I forgot to take a picture. I’ve never been fond of guacamole as I find the flavor a bit lethargic, but I don’t mind their version since it includes radishes, which impart a more cutting flavor. The preparation is different from that of the dinner service, the main difference being that the lunch preparation has chips while the dinner version instead uses cucumber and (I believe) turnips.
My first course had interested me as I enjoy king crab and the corn flan was intriguing. However, the crab was rubbery and I could not even cut it with the fork that was supplied. The duo of corn was outstanding; Bayless’ cuisine always makes expressive use of vegetables, and the corn flan and toasted corn were a terrific exploration of a quintessentially Mexican ingredient, having the (unintended) effect of rendering the crab almost superfluous.
After telling the server that I had found the crab a bit overcooked, my server thoughtfully brought out an extra course as an apology: tamal with “string cheese,” tomatillo-infused salsa, and black beans. This would not have been my first choice since my main dish was to include tamal, but it was pleasant ‘comfort food.’ I also enjoyed the earthenware pot in which this was served; one of the benefits of dining at Topolo is the opportunity to consume Mexican cuisine in more aesthetically pleasing serviceware than one finds at most Mexican restaurants in this country (the dark blue water glasses hold similar appeal.)
The lamb is Bayless’ signature dish and a great value at $23. Black mole with “chilhaucle chiles and 28 other ingredients” was poured tableside to complement the lamb, tamal, black beans, and green beans. A plate of house-made tortillas completed the presentation. Bayless’ main dishes are very sauce driven, which not only appeals to my personal sensibility but also unifies the disparate components.
For dessert my companion and I selected Vida, Muerta, y un Tazon de Chocolate: Oaxacan chocolate cake, cinnamon nicuatole, chocolate ice cream, smoked masa foam, and cherries. This was possibly my favorite dessert all year and the impetus for writing this post. The dish drew its inspiration from a Mexican work of art; drawing from a painting reminded me of the Miro-inspired squab-dish I enjoyed at Alinea, although this was far more nuanced, if less 3-dimensional. I always enjoy dishes that manage to disguise their complexity (this was an aspect of Ria’s cuisine that I was particularly fond of) and the pristine composition belied the complex juxtaposition of chocolate preparations.
This lunch cemented Topolobampo’s standing as my favorite Chicago restaurant, and I think they offer the best lunch in the city (for my money the second-best is Naha, located across the street.) The lunch service isn’t dumbed down like other fine dining restaurants (Sixteen, for example), standing on its own without simply operating to financially assist the dinner service. While lunch is not generally as much of a special-occasion context and does not have as great a potential to ‘wow,’ the setting and cuisine achieved a rarefied degree of delectation. I exited this lunch with the same feeling I’ve had after previous visits—that Topolobampo is unlike anywhere else—which is to my mind the best compliment a restaurant can receive.