Saturday, October 8, 2011

When You Go To Chicago, Visit a Classic— Frontera Grill

Dexter's Head Mask
Above the Bar at Frontera Grill

Master Chef Rick Bayless
      We’ve been to Frontera Grill a number of times over the past fifteen years and to its upscale sister, Topolobampo.  Rick Bayless was the first Top Chef Masters winner and he has always been in the restaurant whenever we’ve visited.  We’ve trumpeted that fact to all our friends and then, wouldn’t you know, he wasn’t there this time.  He and his wife Deanna are listed as the proprietors and there’s a chef so I guess he’s going for the Alice Waters model, which is fine, but does give me pause.  (I don’t want him to end up a media celebrity, rather than a gourmet master, as has happened with other chefs whose personalities preceded their palates).  Everyone who’s accompanied us, with one exception (more on that later), has really enjoyed the ambience and the food.  Frontera seats about sixty-five and has limited reservations.  They have always based their clientele on walk-ins and I’ve known people to wait
two hours and longer to secure a seat.  One way around this is to sit in the bar area, where there are stools and some snug type areas.  From the outside, on Clark Street, a passerby would think that this was a stylish restaurant in the vibrant River North neighborhood, but not much more than that.  The James Beard Foundation (the U.S. restaurant version of the Oscars) voted it the best restaurant of 2007, but the staff possesses the confidence to continue a great run without calling attention to it.  

Frontera Grill's Dining Area
      It’s a bustling restaurant and it can be loud because of the amount of tile, metal, and various hard surfaces in the space without much muffling.  However, it is not a din, and it runs like a Lexus.  Although they’re efficient and keep the tables turning over, there’s never a sense of being rushed.  The artwork sends a vibrant charge throughout the space and the colors of the walls, furniture, flatware, and food are simultaneously wild and timeless.

      Neil and I met Shel and Erica for brunch.  It’s an extensive menu with specialty, egg, taco, enchilada, and cazuela dishes as well as guacamole and snacks (large enough to share).  The staff will make recommendations and advise on choices.  

Watermelon and
Lemon Mint Drink
Don't forget to look over the specialty drinks, alcoholic and otherwise.  There's always a special one involving a fruit and herb/vegetable mixture.  Neil and I both had the Watermelon and Lemon Mint concoction...smooth, slightly sweet, and refreshing.  For brunch Shel chose the Hot Cakes Indgenas, also known as white corn pancakes with bacon and eggs, though the syrup was organic agave and the topping was goat cheese with pecans.  That last detail really made the dish.  Erica had the Huevos a la Mexicana, which was scrambled eggs with grilled green onions, cilantro, and avocado.  Erica added the shrimp, which were incorporated into the eggs and it was a lovely complement of textures.  The Serrano chilies did not overpower the dish, but added some heat that offset the creaminess of the eggs.  Neil went for the Sapitos, which are three corn masa cakes in a chipotle sauce with three different toppings:  scrambled eggs, grilled chicken, chorizo and plantains.  Homemade crema and queso fresco were served on the side.  I’ve eaten this in the past and it’s practically a symphony of flavors and textures.  Yes, that sounds like copy writing and certainly Frontera wouldn’t describe the dish that way, but it’s a little over the top and I’m going with it.  I ordered the Chilquilas al Guajillo, which was a tortilla casserole with red guajillo sauce (spicy but not too hot), crema, queso anejo, and a sunny-side up egg with greens on the side.  It was a little like lasagna, but instead of noodles, it was layered with long slices of tortilla chips.  It was very good, but not the best dish I’ve had there.  

Hot Cakes Indgenas
Huevos a la Mexicano
Chilquilas al Guajillo
      The dessert choices are all one-of-a-kind.  We shared an order of the Donitas de Chocolate con Calabacita—mini zucchini doughnuts with dark chocolate crema, cinnamon ice cream, and crystallized zucchini slices.  I’ve never had anything less than an imaginative and beautifully executed dessert there and it is best to share.  The coffee is their own blend and, of course, they’ve supported free trade since the Reagan administration.  

Donitas de Chocolate con Calabacita
      Okay, so it’s worth the visit.  The only person who didn’t love it, though she recommended it to friends who did, was my Mother.  The reason is because she thought it was too eclectic and not authentic Mexican food.  She also doesn’t make a big deal about Mexican cuisine because she’s able to get really good Mexican food for very cheap prices.  She can because she lives in the Rocky Mountains and it’s readily available at independent madre y padre places – like Thai or Indian in Cincinnati.  
However, the ‘not authentic’ gibe has been lobbed at Rick Bayless in the past.  It’s not fair because what it really means is that it’s not the Mexican food your mother or the chain Mexican next to the strip mall makes.  Bayless traveled extensively through Mexico as a graduate student, wrote a definitive examination of the different regions of Mexican cooking, and then opened Frontera Grill.  I don’t think you can get more authentic than that.  It’s like saying that the stylish New American restaurant in your city isn’t authentic because it doesn’t serve burgers (German), fries (French), or macaroni and cheese (sort of bastardized Italian).  Anyway, when you’re in Chicago, check out Frontera or make a reservation (they take them) at the tonier (and more expensive) Topolobampo.  When critics and bloggers yap on about ‘complex flavors’, a ‘variety of textures’,  ‘a great dining experience’, etc., etc., you’ll smell, see, and taste what they mean.

Frontera Grill on Urbanspoon

No comments: