24 December 2009

KwikPick: Dinner at Topolobampo, Chicago

We were in Chicago for Thanksgiving. My daughter and son-in-law requested dinner at Topolobampo. I've heard a lot about Rick Bayless and was curious about Topolo and his other restaurants, so we said 'Sure.'

Ratings are on a scale of 1-5. Click here for my criteria for each rating.

Food: 4
Service: 3
Ambiance: 4
Value: 3

First of all, to go there, you can't think of it as just Mexican food. This ain't your ordinary taqueria. The items on the menu are creative combinations of flavors intended to surprise and delight you. And the dining room where you enjoy these culinary creations is somewhat formal. You can dine in an informal setting at the Frontera Grill, located in the same space. But we were celebrating a special occasion, so we chose the more dressy, formal setting.

So let me explain my ratings. which may seem unimpressive. Start with the food. Most of it was fabulous! We started with a trio of different ceviches (I'm not sure if the plural of ceviche is ceviches.) All of them were great. I particularly liked the Atun 'Chamoy' which was tuna with a spicy, tangy citrus dressing. We also shared an order of "Tacos de Huitlacoche." These were crispy rolled tacos filled with a corn mushroom combination. Also very tasty. My son-in-law had a pork belly soup that he said was very good. It was served with a lime "air," a bit of foamy something with a nice lime flavor; very unique.

So far, so good. Next came our entrees. I had scallops. They were cooked just the way I like them, still very moist and not at all rubbery. The accompaniments on the plate included a very tasty chili sauce and a pea-cilantro mash and enoki mushrooms. My daughter had a lamb rib-eye. The lamb was beautifully cooked and was served with a plate full of wonderful flavors, including pear-infused chili sauce, potato-apple tortitas (which turned out to be like little potato pancakes) and a grilled salad.

Up until this point, I would have said that the food rated a 5. (All right, it wouldn't have made angels weep, but it was excellent.) Then came the duck.

Both my wife and my son-in-law had duck. Both of them asked for their duck to be cooked more medium rather than medium rare. Both were served medium rare to seared. They ate it, and the flavors were great. But I guess when you're paying a premium to eat at a celebrity chef restaurant, they should be somewhat accommodating on preparation. After all, it's not like they asked for it well done. And at the very least, if the chef objected to cooking the duck to medium, then the server should have said so and given them the option of choosing something else.

Which brings me to my next quibble - the service. I checked Yelp reviews to see what other diners said. It seems that haughty servers are a standard at Topolo. Our guy was ok, just not remarkably so. He did make a very good recommendation on a glass of wine that my wife ordered. But by and large, he was not particularly attentive and all of commented that he seemed to have a very superior attitude. Hence an 'average' 3 rating.

I thought the ambiance was nice and gave it an above-average rating of 4.

Overall value had to be an average 3. Sure, most of the food was excellent. But the price tag was steep. Except for the duck, we felt we paid a fair price for the evening. But there's no way I could say it was a great value for the money.

Recommendation: Go for a unique dining experience. Go for the celebrity cache. (Bayless didn't appear on our visit, but apparently he's there often.) Go for a special occasion. Just be prepared for service with attitude and an expensive tab.

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