Topolobampo: Jumps from the Kitchen to the Plate

CHICAGO- I was once lucky enough to have a few precious hours between flights in this great town. There was no hesitation as to where it would be spent, in the care of restaurateurs Rick and Deann Bayless, owners of Chicago's unique Mexican restaurants, Topolobampo and its little next door brother, The Frontera Grill.

That was years ago and a 48 hour visit to the city late this spring allowed me yet another glimpse and sampling of the Bayliss magic. Rick and Deann have done more for the understanding of Mexican food in America than any two people I know. Their passion is exhaustive, with regular field trips to visit markets, study ingredients and cooking techniques, equipment, artwork and feasts. And they present a full package in their brightly colored, fun, art-filled settings.

Their enthusiasm for and knowledge of this land of hot peppers and cilantro, corn and smoky chilies, plantains and black beans literally jumps from the kitchen to the plate. This is not the sort of restaurant one can be ambivalent about, it gets under your skin, takes a swat at your palate, leaves you dreamy as you walk out the door, having just sipped their heavenly Elixir Tropical, a mixture of papayas and mango, raspberries and jicama (a crisp root vegetable with the texture of fresh water chestnuts) in a cool tropical broth.

But I am getting ahead of myself. An ideal late spring starter consisted of a seviche , a perfect palate opener, a finely acidic, highly spiced modern style preparation of raw baby scallops marinated in lime juice and seasoned with chipotle peppers, oregano vinegar and olive oil.

Then we moved to serious eating, sampling their classic Lenten dried shrimp cakes (Tortitas de Camarones); as well as very light Yucatecan enchiladas, prepared with homemade tortillas and bathed with a smooth and savory pumpkin seed sauce.

But one of my favorite dishes of the evening was the Sopa Azteca, a dreamy soup made up of a dark broth flavored with chile pasilla, garnished with grilled chicken, avocado, cheese, thick cream and that perfect touch of crunch, crisp tortilla strips.

Each dish is beautifully presented and though the food appears complex, a single main ingredient is always the star. As in the best dish of the evening aged Wisconsin Crawford Farm leg of lamb, served with an earthy corn mushroom sauce and teamed up with sweet roasted garlic and chile pasilla. Equally stunning is the rabbit loin set over a banana leaf braise of poblano chiles, carrots, garlic, and fingerling potatoes. The roasted Serrano salsa was the perfect foil for all these ultra-fresh ingredients.

Vegetarians would delight in the Tama Azteca, a monumental layered casserole of zucchini, corn, Swiss chard, poblanos and a delightfully smoky tomato sauce.

What to drink with all this? We had the rich red Spanish Tempranillo from Ribera del Duero region just north of Madrid. The fashionable wine from the pale and aromatic Rioja grape stands up perfectly to all of the Bayless fancy dancing with spice and pungency. Other good choices include a floral white Viognier from the Andrew Murray vineyards in Santa Barbara, California or a Napa Valley Riesling from Stony Hill.

TOPOLOBAMBO (and Frontera Grill)
445 North Clark Street
Chicago, Illinois
Tel: 312 661 1434
Closed All major credit cards. Five-course tasting menu at $55. A la carte, about $45, not including service or wine.
Back Burner

Shaw's Crab House

It had been about 10 years since I had the pleasure of dining at Shaw’s Crab House, a rabbit warren of dining rooms decked out with lots of Americana as well as lots of the city’s inhabitants. The place was packed on that Friday night in spring, with hordes of happy hour revelers still tucking into that day’s oyster sampling (from Nova Scotia and Oregon, British Columbia, and Martha’s Vineyard no less), washing down the sweet and succulent bivalves with lots of malty beer or oyster friendly wines.

This place is amazing, though not the spot to be for a quick or quiet or romantic evening. Service can be uneven and slow, but trust me, if it is fresh fish and shellfish you want in Chicago, then it is worth the wait.

Along with the astonishing selection of fresh oysters, sweet Dungeness, Florida Stone Crab and soft-shell crabs in season, Shaw’s serves incredible crab cakes, and, on the evening we visited the most delicious, moist, pure-flavored Roasted Alaskan Halibut steak you can imagine, paired with roasted fingerling potatoes and asparagus. The wine list is largely American, and the key lime pie, totally awesome: tangy, pert and the perfect way to end an evening.

Shaw’s Crab House & Blue Crab Lounge
21 East Hubbard Street
Chicago, Illinois
Tel: 312 527 2722.
Open daily. All major credit cards. About $35 per person, not including service or wine.