Frontera Grill (Chicago, IL)

As I mentioned before in my Blue Ginger review, I generally eschew the restaurants of celebrity chefs, since they generally seem to be busier attempting to be celebrities than being successful chefs and restauranteurs. That said, there are several prominent chefs who I think manage to run consistently good restaurants without selling themselves out, keeping the focus on the food. One of these is Rick Bayless (author of one of my most-used cookbooks), and owner of several good restaurants including Topolobampo and Frontera Grill.

I really want to do Topolobampo, but since the primary purpose of our trip was meeting up with friends (for our annual Death March, a 20+ mile walk through a metro area), and the fact that I’ve been a bit organizationally challenged recently, we just weren’t able to work the reservations (what little effort we put into trying to score good reservations was spent on an unsuccessful waiting list slot for Alinea). So Topolobampo will have to wait for another time, and I can live vicariously through my friend Emily (who is a meticulous planner when it comes to food trips), who posted photos of her trip in 2011. But there’s a nice consolation prize here: right next door to Topolobampo is Frontera Grill, and with a modicum of effort you can generally get in without trouble; most of the seating at Frontera is reserved for walk-ins, so it’s simply a matter of showing up before a long line forms. In our case, this meant that showing up at 4:15 to meet our friend Kevin on a Thursday evening was plenty early enough to get the very front of the line. So when they opened at 5pm, we were given a 5:20 seating and directed to the bar.

First we started with cocktails, and Frontera’s bar offers several aqua fresca cocktails, which are still somewhat rare on the cocktail scene (at least up here in the Northeast). I’ve dabbled with aqua fresca cocktails myself; indeed, I highly recommend the combination of jamaica and a good non-spiced rum for a nice, refreshing summer cocktail. But Frontera has quite a few interesting cocktails, including the daily special, which was a pineapple and orange aqua fresca, muddled with jalapeño and mint, blanco tequila, and a squeeze of lime. While having a very strong jalapeño bite, this was a very pleasant combination of flavors, and very refreshing. For that matter, their house made gin and tonic was also refreshing, although I had that much later in the meal.

Once we got seated, it was time to sort out our orders. After a small strategy session, we decided the best approach was to select three different appetizers so we could sample a decent cross-section of the menu. We ended up selecting the yellowtail ceviche, the chicken in wild ramp crema, and the black bean tlacoyos.

The black bean tlacoyos were very nicely done masa cakes filled with black beans, served up with some nice anejo cheese and salsa negra. These were exactly what I expect from a tlacoyo (one of these days I’ll have to figure out what exactly is the difference between a tlacoyo and a gordita): perfect masa texture that’s been cooked enough to be soft, an exterior that’s nicely crisped, and a really good black been filling. The salsa negro and anejo cheese were the perfect accompaniment, giving a nice savory and spicy sauce to the dish.

We also ordered the yellowtail ceviche, which was nicely done, but not stunning. Don’t get me wrong, there was absolutely nothing wrong with this dish, but compared to the rest of the meal it was just… normal.

Next up, however, was the best appetizer of our meal, the Chicken in Wild Ramp Crema. Basically chunks of grilled chicken, fingerling potatoes, and ramps in a delicious cream sauce, this was one of the best savory sauces I’ve had in a while. I’m not exactly sure what was in the sauce other than caramelized ramps (which paired nicely with the fresh ramps also in the sauce), but it just worked well. Also in the same sauce were some nicely done potatoes which soaked up more of the sauce. Add in a light dusting of cheese, and some crisped epazote, and it all came together in a perfect little appetizer. Good enough that Kevin jokingly asked if it would be rude if he licked the bowl (he didn’t).

Overall, this was an outstanding selection of appetizers, and a good start to the meal. We similarly decided to spread out our main course selections in the same manner, so that we could explore more of the menu.

When it came to the main course, I had an easy time ordering. I opted for the Duck with Pasilla-Huitlacoche Sauce, for several reasons. First, it’s duck. I always like nicely prepared duck, and I was sure that Frontera would do a good job. Second, the sauuce featured huitlacoche. I love the flavor of huitlacoche, but we’ve got such poor Mexican culinary presence in Northern New England that we never see huitlacoche up our way. For that matter, if we did, most everyone would probably avoid it, especially if they knew what exactly it was (for those that aren’t in the know, the English name of this fungus is particularly not appetizing: corn smut). But it was definitely worth ordering: the duck was perfectly prepared, with a nice crispy skin. The sauce was a perfect blend of sharp pasilla pepper notes mellowed with the woodier notes of the huitlacoche. Topped with a nice sweet corn salad and a dusting of anejo cheese, this really came together as a near-perfect dinner.

Carol opted for a fairly straightforward order, the chiles rellenos. While this dish is rock-standard Mexican food, and we thought it was a bit of a risk ordering it with all the other phenomenal dished on the menu. However, this turned out to be a very good call, since we got to see how good Frontera could prepare a standard dish like this. Well, the answer is “very well indeed”. The chiles were very substantial in size (indeed, Carol’s dinner dwarfed mine), one filled with cheese and one filled with minced-pork picadillo. The chiles themselves had a really nice roasted flavor to them, and were breaded with a very fluffy and light souffle batter breading, which did the very difficult dual purpose of providing a coating for the chiles that stayed crispy, while also absorbing a good amount of the tomato-chile sauce around the chiles. The result was pretty much the perfect execution of chiles rellenos, one that I’ll definitely be trying to recreate at home.

Kevin ended up going with the dish that would have been my backup choice: the Pork in Manchamanteles. Several slices of a chile-marinated pork loin, served in an ancho-almond mole, alongside kale and chorizo, this dish is loaded with Mexican ingredients I love (pork, a good mole, kale, chorizo….) While I didn’t get to sample any of this, it looked phenomenal, and Kevin rather enjoyed it as well.

We did a few sides as well: the “Venomous Beans” which were good, but not much different than, say, the borracho beans I make occasionally at home. The plantains we ordered, however, really hit the spot. The plantains themselves were perfectly cooked, with the outside starting to become very caramelized. Served up with homemade sour cream and fresh cheese (I’ve never had them this way), this was a very pleasant counterpoint to the more spicy and savory tastes from the rest of the meal.

Finishing up the meal, Kevin and Carol both ordered the lime tart: a lime custard tart with cornmeal crust, prickly pear ice cream, and a nicely toasted meringue. I managed to get more than a few bites of Carol’s dish, and really enjoyed it. The lime was the perfect taste for cleansing my palate after the meal, with nice robust lime flavors. The crust was a perfect cornmeal crust, still keeping some flakiness while otherwise having the typical crumb crust texture. The ice cream was nicely done with a prickly pear flavor that was more subtle than anything else. Overall, a good conclusion to a good dinner.

Adding it all up, we really enjoyed Frontera. For a restaurant where, with little planning, we could get in without a reservation, Frontera served up some top-notch food, including both adventurous dishes and good renditions of Mexican classics. The staff was really friendly, the cocktails pleasant, and the environment nice. While I still need to get into Topolobampo sometime, this was an outstanding dinner, and I’d love a chance to return.

4 Responses

  1. Emily 09 May 2012 at 13:09 #

    Sounds like a great meal. Since we did Topolobampo, it’s nice to hear your take on Frontera! It sounds like Frontera is relatively similar in terms of food… just slightly less fancy. (Aren’t they focusing more on street food influences now? Or does that start later?) Your duck entree looked fabulous; I also went straight for the huitlacoche when ordering at Topolo. 🙂

    • kaszeta 09 May 2012 at 14:07 #

      They’ve definitely started the street food focus, but it’s mostly in the smaller dishes and appetizers. You went for the huitlacoche? I knew you found you didn’t have an almond allergy, but I thought you had a mushroom one… Did you shed that? If so, cool!

      • Emily 09 May 2012 at 14:15 #

        Yeah, we’ve determined that almonds, pistachios, pine nuts, and mushrooms are all safe now. (Cashews are probably safe too, but I still haven’t tested those.) I tried huitlacoche in some dumplings at Lolo in SF back in 2009, so I may have even figured that one out before the mushrooms!

        • kaszeta 09 May 2012 at 14:28 #

          Excellent news.

          (And cashews are probably safe unless you’ve got a strong poison ivy allergy, although now isn’t the particular time to be testing that 😉 )

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