Monday, February 7, 2011

Topolobampo or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the snow

Its been quite an eventful week here in Chicago. Something about a bit of snow...? Check out this insane picture of Lakeshore Drive (kind of the equivalent to the Henry Hudson Highway) stolen from the Tribune:

crazy, right? I guess there was something like 400 abandoned cars. City was quite a mess. In reality it wasn't that bad in terms of snowfall. 20 something inches, although I dont know how they figure that number. The wind in Chicago is constantly moving the snow around so there are like...snow dunes. You can be walking on dry ground and then have to climb over a mountain. Either way, the snow wasn't so bad, the reaction from the city & its residents was. I wound up having two days off from school which kind of blew. I spent the time dehydrating.

So the day the storm hit I had a reservation at Topolobampo. This place is one of the most popular restaurants in Chicago. You have probably heard of or seen Rick Bayless, who runs the joint. Due to his fame and the restaurants popularity, I had to make my mid week reservation a month in advance. So naturally the entire day I was panicky that the restaurant would close and I would have to make another reservation. On my break from class I got a phone call from them wanting to reconfirm my reservation. If they were staying open, I was going. Once class let out I had to work a CE class with Chef Pierre Zimmermann, which just means I had to wash some dishes. The class wound up letting out early because of the weather, which meant I had to figure out where to hold up in the storm for a couple hours before dinner - as Topoolobampo is much closer to school than my apartment. I found a bar a few blocks away and had a few beers...maybe some wings..and then made my way over to the restaurant. Even though I only had a couple blocks to go I was a bit disoriented due to the white out conditions at the time. When I got to Topolobampo I was quickly seated and brought this:


Guacamole with blood orange; cukes & turnips for dipping - This was super tasty, subtly spicy...and the veggies were a nice touch. Lighter and easier to eat than chips.

I ordered a drink:

The Vampiro Fronterizo - El Milagro Silver tequila and Maraca tantalizing bloody mary mix, spiked with fresh lime juice. This was tasty...like a bloody mary and margarita had a child. I always put lime in my bloody marys because Im not a huge fan of lemon...so this was right up my alley.

Topolobampo offers 3 different five course menus, as well as al la carte service. I knew I wanted a tasting but couldn't really decide on any one in particular. The dining room was a little..vacant due to the weather and I assumed the kitchen staff would be a bit bored (maybe not the right word.....expecting a less than exciting service for the evening?)..So I asked the kitchen to just send me 10 courses, whatever they felt like doing. They agreed without any hesitation. A little disclaimer ahead of time, some of the courses I received I couldn't place off the menus at any of the Frontera restaurants so my descriptions may be a little subpar. You'll live.

Course 1:

So the first course was a sample from the raw bar. Three different oysters - no clue what varieties but they were all super fresh and yummy. They were paired with tomatillo-habanero mioneta & a smoky chipotle-garlic salsa. Also on the platter were two different ceviches...both of which were great too. One was Ceviche Fronterizo - lime marinated hawaiian albacore with tomatoes, olives, cilantro, and green chile. The other, which I absolutely loved, was Ceviche Yucateco - steamed mexican blue shrimp and calamari tossed with lime, orange, habanero, avocado, jicama, and cilantro. I spent a good portion of last fall making raw bar platters...which by no means makes me an expert but..this was a seriously solid platter. It set a tone for a really spectacular meal.

Course 2:

Ensalad de Noche Buena - A contemporary take on Mexico's famous holiday salad, with tangy crunchy jicama, local beets three ways (poached, powdered, and crisped), smoky blood orange, sweet-savory peanut marzipan, and tangy baby beet greens. Okay so...I love beet salads. I love beets....so naturally I loved this dish. Everything went together beautifully...great balance of flavors. Really awesome. One amazing thing about this meal was that each course had some ingredient or preparation that I love..it was like I was cooking for myself (if I was a much better chef, that is)

Course 3:

Red chile roasted carrots 'a la plaza' with pickled vegetables (jicama). This was not on the menu currently so I'm going by what I could snoop off the internet. This was a really nice, smoky...lots of flavor and not heavy at all.

Course 4:

Chorizo-Blood Sausage, egg yolk & white, 3 chile salsa, hickory bacon meringues, turnip. This was SO good. Theres no way I can do this course justice. It was elegant without being pretentious - incredibly savory and satisfying. I wanted to lick the plate. I cleared it in the time it took my server to grab a pitcher of water to refill my glass. So good.

Course 5:

Succulent Slow Poached Texas Red Fish infused with herby acuyo, camote hash brown, braised fennel, fennel broth & hoja santa oil (I think?). The first slurp of broth made me instantly want to sneeze, kind of like the first gulp of a really strong ginger beer. It was awesome. Super strong fennel flavor, which I really love a lot. The fish was incredibly tender and flavorful. Really solid dish all round.

Course 6:

Roasted Cauliflower (my favorite) & Sunchoke...some other stuff..and some salsa? I couldn't come up with any information on this one...Doesn't matter though. If theres roasted cauliflower to be had, I'm happy. This was awesome.

Course 7:

Ribeye with bone marrow, sunflower seed pippin, wilted and fried kale, & sunchokes - I was dumbfounded by this course. Its like I made a list of my favorite things and sent it to the kitchen and they just put them all on a plate. Bone marrow? Ribeye? I was in heaven. Awesome way to end the savory courses.

Course 8:

Melcocha epsuma, compote of masumoto farm dried peaches & seedling white cherries, fennel, pistachio - Again with the list of favorite things...This dessert/intermezzo/transition ...whatever you want to call it..was simply brilliant. There was such a delicate balance of flavors...little nuances like the random pistachios bringing a wonderful nutty flavor and texture...This was my favorite from the pastry side...and I would love to have it again.

Course 9:

Coco y Dateless - Steamed sweet coconut tamale, creamy coconut ice cream, tamarind stuffed bahri dates, candide deglet noor dates, coconut..crispies? - The cake was awesome and incredibly tender, the ice cream was delicious and had a wonderful mouthfeel. This dessert walked a fine line between sweet & overly sweet, something I feel coconut things can do...but it worked really well. A very refreshing course.

Course 10:

Chocolate cake, sour cream ganache, preserved fraises de obis, mint-milk sorbet - So its worth mentioning that at this point I was so far beyond full that I couldn't finish this course. I was full from beer and wings when I walked into the restaurant and knew it was going to be challenge to finish everything by the time I was eating course 2. But everything was SO good I took one for the team (team greg?). This was great. The mint ice cream actually tasted like mint...not some gross minty sugary crap that you get out of a cardboard container. The cake was delicious and...well look at the picture..it was a seriously beautiful dessert.

Mignardises:

So...these were delivered to my table by the pastry chef, Jennifer Jones. She thanked me for letting the kitchen play around and said they had a great time putting together a longer menu. I always think its silly when people thank me for eating their amazing food. They did all the work! So thank you Jennifer, and the rest of the amazing kitchen and FOH staff at Topolobampo...you guys certainly deserve all the praise you receive. Oh yeah..and the mignardises...heres the thing. This is the best way to compare and contrast pastry chefs because everyone in the city (or...everywhere, frankly) does pretty much the same thing...so..you can see who makes the best pate de fruit...or the best torrone...and well...each one of these were seriously good...some of, if not, the best Ive had in Chicago. The thought and care, and attention to detail put into each of these desserts and mignardises was really amazing and..well yeah, I was super impressed all around. Wish I had asked about staging with them!

Later in the week (Saturday) my school held a fundraiser at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago. This was quite an event (no real # yet, but we were expecting 1000 people). Chefs from all over Chicago, as well as some from other parts of the country were there supporting the French Pastry School. It was really amazing to see so many people rallying behind the school to raise money for scholarships. Some chefs in attendance: Rick Bayless, Sherry Yard, Meg Galus, Jimmy MacMillan, Giuseppe Tentori, Kady Yon, Graham Elliot Bowles, Paul Kahan, Patrick Fahey, Jean Joho, Kai Lermen, Jason MeLeod, Takashi Ygihashi, Paul Virant...and about a million others. Quite the event!

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