Not everyone has the relentless drive and impassioned fortitude to parlay their most ardent desires and zealous fervor into a wildly successful thematic venture, but then not everyone is Rick Bayless, America’s Mexican chef and restaurateur nonpareil. His single-minded passion for the Mexican culinary experience is reflected in multimedia ventures such as his successful PBS television series “Cooking Mexican” and “Mexico – One Plate At A Time” as well as his genre-redefining, award-winning books. One of those books, Authentic Mexican was heralded by the New York Times as “the greatest contribution to the Mexican table imaginable” while another, Mexican Kitchen was chosen best cookbook of the year. Mostly, however, his passion is reflected in his restaurants.
In 1987, Bayless launched the vivacious and hyper-energetic Frontera Grill restaurant in Chicago, a veritable pantheon to his unique interpretations of contemporary regional Mexican cooking. The walls of the Fronter Grill could be decorated with all the plaudits and accolades it and its proprietor have earned. Instead its walls are festooned with museum quality folk art from throughout Mexico, some whose whimsical quality will bring a smile to your face. It’s more likely, however, the edible culinary arts played a more significant part in the restaurant being named the “third best casual restaurant in the world” by the International Herald Tribune and in earning a James Beard “Outstanding Restaurant” Award in 2007. It goes without saying that you won’t find a sombrero or a serape decorating these walls.
The Frontera Grill rocks and rollicks! It’s vibrant, boisterous and lively–no need for mariachis here. The wait staff is ambassadorial in its courtesy and Mensa-like in its knowledge. The food is beautiful to look at and absolutely delightful to the taste. It is fresh, vibrant and plated like a work of art. The Frontera Grill would be the very best Mexican restaurant I’ve experienced in the United States were it not for its fabulous sister restaurant, the more upscale Topolobampo. It’s a restaurant at which every morsel of every appetizer, entree, dessert and beverage dances on your taste buds like a sensuous siren. It’s the antithesis of every stereotypical Taco Bell quality pseudo Mexican restaurant to which Americans have, for far too long, been subjected. With his triumvirate of terrific restaurants, Bayless has redefined what diners recognize as and appreciate about Mexican food. He has elevated Mexican cuisine it to the levels of gourmet, fine-dining and to recognition as one of the world’s great cuisines.
The Frontera Grill is to be shared; it should not be experienced alone lest you risk friends and family not believing your tales of culinary indulgences so great and grandiose as to sound mythical. Take friends or family and you’ll not only double the fun, you’ll also double what you’ll get to sample by sharing orders family style. You’ll also have witnesses to validate a sensational shared experience. In September, 2012, I had the privilege of sharing a meal at the Frontera Grill with friends and fellow culinary bon vivants Bill Resnik and Paul Fleissner. It was Bill’s inaugural visit to Frontera and it was wholly unlike any visit to any Mexican restaurant he’d previously had. His wide-eyed wonder mirrors that of many first-time visitors. The Frontera Grill must be seen and experienced to be believed!
The Frontera Grill menu of hardwood grilled dishes, rich moles, and chile-thickened braises is gleaned from cooks in markets, homes and restaurants throughout Mexico. That menu changes every month which keeps things lively and interesting, but may also mean your favorite dish may not be available next time you visit. Bayless’s sometimes rather loose interpretations of Mexican dishes are, at the very least, optimized versions of time-honored and traditional recipes. At other times, they’re Mexican “inspired” dishes showcasing his creativity in making Mexican cuisine all it can be. He has forged relationships with local artisan farmers who provide the high-quality, fresh and organic sustainable ingredients used in his restaurants. Quite often those ingredients are of much higher quality than might be found in Mexico.
From the onset of your meal, those ingredients shine both figuratively and literally. The tomatillo salsa, ameliorated with Serrano and cilantro, is nearly luminescent, as green as pulsating kryptonite. It’s fresh, lively and invigorating, not so much with piquancy but with a brightness of ingredients coalescing to give you just a bit of heat complemented by a savory tanginess which characterizes tomatillos. A three-chile salsa, made from very different but complementary chiles–Cascabel, Morita and Guajillo–is similarly luminescent, an iridescent reddish hue. It has a greater depth of flavor than its verdant cousin, but only enough heat to get your attention. The tortilla chips have a just-made and very pronounced corn flavor.
The Bacon Guacamole, constructed from grilled white onions, roasted Serrano, roasted tomatillo and bacon is rich and unctuous, as smooth and creamy as butter and lovingly tinged by the sultry porcine perfection that is bacon and a pleasant piquancy courtesy of the roasted Serrano. It may seem like an unlikely flavor pairing, but it works exceptionally well. The guacamole is made from avocados at their very peak of ripeness. Nestled atop a sheet of banana leaves, it’s a special starter.
No matter what other appetizers you order, make sure to save room for an item or two from the ceviche and raw bar (oysters, seafood cocktails and ceviches). Oysters are shucked to order and served with a tomatillo-habanero “minoneta” and a smoky chipotle-garlic salsa and fresh-cut limes. Even better is an oyster and ceviche plate featuring one dozen oysters and their accompaniments as well as ceviche and a tropical tuna cocktail. The ceviche is incomparable, as good (if not better) than the ceviche you’ll find at Peruvian restaurants.
If you’re a ceviche addict, there’s no better starter than the Ceviche Trio: Frontera Ceviche, Yucatecan Ceviche and a Tropical Tuna Cocktail. Each showcases the freshness and flavor of seafood “cooked” in citrus juices. The Yucatan Ceviche (shrimp, squid, orange, cucumber ) is bold and beguiling, a melange of briny seafood cooked perfectly and tangy citrus so invigorating you’ll dredge up every last drop. It would make an excellent cocktail. So would the remaining liquid after you’re done consuming the seafood and its accompaniments on the Tropical Tuna Cocktail (sashimi-grade Hawaiian big eye tuna, avocado-tomatillo, tropical fruit salsa). The tropical fruit salsa and avocado-tomatillo are as refreshing a pairing as you’ll ever find on ceviche while the big eye tuna epitomizes smoothness. The eponymous Frontera Ceviche (albacore, tomato, olive) isn’t quite as lively, showcasing the just-caught freshness of the albacore.
At the hands of the Frontera Grill kitchen staff, even something as simple as quesadillas are elevated to the level of sublime. Northern-Style Quesadillas start off with flour tortillas folded over Wisconsin Jack cheese then engorged with one of the following fillings: black beans and young greens, duck carnitas with grilled red onion, charcoaled chicken with guacamole, tender Mexican woodland mushrooms with roasted poblano peppers and grilled shrimp with smoky, spicy chipotle peppers. The duck carnitas are exquisite, a light smokiness permeating the rich, moist duck which was moist and tender without a surfeit of fat. The saltiness of the Jack cheese and the sweetness of the grilled red onions made for a perfect interplay with the savory goodness of the duck.
Frontera’s Sopes Rancheros, crispy masa boats filled with savory shredded beef, roasted tomato, avocado and homemade fresh cheese are wholly unlike the sopes found in Mexican restaurants throughout the Land of Enchantment which tend to pile on ingredients atop a tostada shell. The masa is perfectly textured–light and delicate, but strong enough to form an interior “pool” into which the ingredients are piled. The shredded beef is savory and lightly seasoned. There isn’t much bite to this dish, but there is a lot of flavor and it’s all quite good.
It’s not every Mexican restaurant at which you’ll find Swiss chard. Frontera’s rendition is among the very best I’ve ever experienced–a cast iron skillet replete with Poblanos rajas, thick cream, roasted potatoes and homemade queso fresco. The thick cream imparts a bit of sweetness reminiscent of coconut milk on Thai food, but it’s all Mexican crema. The melange of ingredients play very well off one another: the sweetness of the cream against the piquancy of the Poblanos, the savory qualities of the roasted potatoes against the saltiness of the queso. It’s a surprisingly good entree.
In a market increasingly saturated with such pretenders as Taco Bell and Chipotle, Frontera Grill is a refreshing change of pace, an authentic champion of the flavors and festivity of Mexico at its very best.
445 North Clark
LATEST VISIT: 5 September 2012
# OF VISITS: 3
BEST BET: Guacamole, Queso Fundido, Tacos al Carbon, Flan de Cajeta, Panque De Chocolate y Kahlua