Restaurant Week: Topolobampo

February 25 2010 - 7:31 PM

With a PBS series, several cookbooks, multiple James Beard awards, and a prolific Twitter account under his belt, Rick Bayless is an undisputed elder statesman of Chicago's culinary scene. Despite my best intentions though, I never made it to either of his flagship restaurants, Frontera Grill or Topolobampo. There was always some new opening to see, another hole-in-the-wall to discover. Then last September, Bayless won Top Chef Masters, the lead time to get a reservation increased exponentially, and I put it off visiting some more.

But, strange things happen when you decide to move out of town. My normally procrastination-friendly mindset has evaporated and I am suddenly scrambling to check off items from an ever-growing bucket list. Should I be trying new restaurants? Revisiting old favorites? Should I be embarrassed that I've never eaten a burger from Kuma's? Is it really worth waiting in line for 4 hours at Great Lakes just to say I've tried the "best pizza in America"? I think I've covered a fair amount of territory already, but there are certainly missing Legos. Where would you go if you had two months left in Chicago? Anyway, the combination of impending deadlines and Restaurant Week was sufficient motivation for me to make a reservation at Topolobampo, 6 weeks in advance. And now that I have finally tried the Mexican maestro's work, I am upset that I didn't haul myself here earlier.

Pictured above is the sopa azteca, a hearty pasilla-flavored broth with chicken, Jack cheese, a thick slice of avocado and thin, crispy tortilla strips. On a chilly February day, this soup was the perfect antidote, zippy and rich but not heavy. Also, the tortilla strips stayed crunchy for an impressively long time. When I make tortilla soup on my own, the tortilla strips invariably turn to mush as soon as they hit the broth, which leads me to conclude they must be doing something magical back there.

The Restaurant Week menu comes with two entree options. The first was puerco en mole poblano, or grill-roasted pork loin in a classic mole sauce, with poblano and guajillo chiles. Black beans, cheese and a bit of watercress rounded out the rest of the plate. Bayless' 30-odd ingredient mole sauces are renowned for their complexity and this one certainly did not disappoint.

The second entree option was a platter of enchiladas vegetarianas. Housemade tortillas were wrapped around roasted vegetables, topped with a bright tomatillo-poblano chile sauce, accompanied by a pyramid of rice pilaf.

For a parting shot, Topolobampo offered a crepa con cajeta, a buttery crepe with salted caramel, Michigan raspberry sauce, toasted pecans and a scoop of ice cream. Rather than ordering a post-meal coffee, I opted for the coffee and kahlua-flavored ice cream, and it was plate-licking good.

Now to determine if I have enough time for a trip to Frontera in the next few weeks… 

445 N. Clark (and Illinois) 
(312) 661-1434