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Review Roundup: Frontera, Topo, D&J Bistro (Lake Zurich), Sushi Ai (Palatine).

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I meant to post this a while back but kept forgetting. These visits all happened in early June. My wife and I are both vegetarians so to those who can't imagine a meal without meat, this probably won't be of much interest.

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It was a nice Saturday afternoon and we decided to give Frontera Grill a walkby at 4:45 We get there and the line was down the block, I'd estimate around 70 people were ahead of us.

The wait for eating outside was 30 minutes, inside 60-90 minutes. When the doors opened, there was a mad rush for the bar. Absolutely packed, you couldn't even squeeze your way over to order a drink, no tables/stools open and lots of people standing around. No problem though, because by 5:20 we were seated outside.

We started with Guacamole. Un freaking believable. I will say it was the best I've ever had. The chips were excellent and the portion was just the right size.

I should mention the margaritas. They are on the small and expensive side, but it's quality not quantity. Unfortunately, I don't remember the name of the one I had but if you read the menu, it has a spicy apricot syrup in it. In a lot of Mexican grocery stores there is a type of candy (I've seen it as a hard or gel candy) that is tamarind dipped in chili powder. If you know what I'm talking about, imagine one of those in liquid form. If you don't, I think it's an interesting flavor combination and worth trying--though perhaps shared with someone as it's not for everyone.

My wife had Tamales de Frijol con Queso de Cabra (black bean tamales filled with homemade goat cheese in a "guisado" of woodland mushrooms, organic roasted tomatoes, green chile and mint; watercress salad). She loved it. I had a couple bites, the first without any goat cheese and found it somewhat blah. But once I got a piece with filling I definitely enjoyed it more. I've never been a tamale fan, and while this didn't sell me on dish in general, I still liked it well enough.

Unfortunately, my entree is not listed on the website so my description of this is from memory. I had yellow fava bean cakes infused with mint in a mushroom sauce, arugula salad, and a side of kale. It was amazing, the bean cakes were fried and had a real nice texture, the filling were fava beans mashed up. The mushroom sauce was made with porcini mushrooms and had a bit of a kick but just excellent, I tasted a bit of chocolate in it (I assume that's from the type of pepper used--chipotle?). It was one of those sauces that I made sure that each bite of the cakes was covered and contemplated licking the plate when I was done.

For dessert, we shared a piece of bittersweet chocolate pecan pie with Kahlua infused whipped creme. It was as good as that sounds.

Service was close to perfect, our waiter knew the menu well, answered our questions, and overall was friendly, but not intrusive.

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The following week were downtown again and decided to try Topolobampo for lunch.

Chips and guacamole start you off. This is included and was, as far as I could remember, the same size as the appetizer portion at Frontera. As good as the first time.

We started with Tamal Colado (Yucatecan polenta-style tamal, layered with herby house-made ricotta, local spring nettles and chipotle-glazed shiitake mushrooms; morita-infused black bean broth completes the picture). The tamal definitely had a polenta feel to it, which is not really my style (my wife was a fan though). The vegetables and sauce around it was excellent.

I had: Tortas "Girasol" - crispy Harmony Valley sunchoke cakes in spicy red guajillo chile sauce with first-of-season morel mushrooms, grilled ramps, fiddlehead ferns and garlicky braised lacinato kale. Served with tortillas. This may sound odd, but this really reminded me of "moo shu" that one gets at a Chinese restaurant. I don't know if it was the sunchoke that reminded me of cabbage or if all the flavors combined kind of added up to that, but that's what this reminded me of. I only had one tortilla shell and just ate the rest as is. I felt it was better straight.

My wife had Chilaquiles de Guajillo y Frijol Negro - torta of shiitake-filled chilaquiles (crispy tortillas simmered in red guajillo chile) served with black bean sauce, homemade crema, crispy white onion and cilantro. She loved it. I only had a few bites and it's pretty much exactly what the description says. Good, but not particularly memorable. Both entrees were so large that neither of us finished.

Of course we weren't so full that we'd pass on dessert....we had three different "creams" which were sort of like balls of pudding. One was lemongrass and prickly pear, one was vanilla, but I don't recall the third (I'm thinking hazelnut). The texture was sort of strange, creamy but gelatinous, and the flavors were interesting. I'm glad we had it but it's not something I'd have again.

As far as service goes, we had the same waiter that we had the previous week at Frontera. He was excellent as before, and his knowledge of the wine list and food pairings was impressive. He suggested a Spanish red that worked very well with my entree...it was good to get away from my typical Gewurtz/Rieslings with Mexican food.

At the end of the day, I must say that while my entree was good at Topo, here I am a bit over a month later and all I can remember about it is that it was "good and sort of like moo shoo." My entree at Frontera however is still fresh in my mind. The ambiance of Topo is definitely quieter and more upscale and the entrees are priced fairly reasonably all things considered. You can't go wrong with either restaurant. We're going back to Frontera on Friday so I can report on that if there's interest.

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My family (six people total) went to D&J Bistro (www.dj-bistro.com) in Lake Zurich to celebrate Mother's Day (this was in June, we couldn't get our schedules to work earlier). I have been meaning to go to D&J Bistro for some time but either kept forgetting or putting it off.

If you are vegetarian, I cannot recommend this place more strongly. Why? The "Menu De Jardin." Five appetizers, five salads, and five entrees: All meatless. I didn't ask, but it looks to me like a number of the items will even accomodate vegans.

I started with a Roasted Portobello Cap with melted Brie. When I make roasted portobellos at home I tend to overdo it with the balsalmic vinegar so when I have them at restaurants they usually strike me as being a bit bland. If it wasn't for the Brie I might have felt this way, but that provided a nice flavor that worked nicely with the earthiness of the mushroom.

My wife had the Soft Spring Roll (avocado, asparagus, tomato, lettuce, purple potato salad, miso dressing). I'm don't care for spring rolls, and this didn't win me over.

My entree wa a Gratin of Provenczal Vegetable en Casserole (zucchini, tomato, eggplant, bean, Swiss cheese with toasted garlic baguette). This was a plate full of the vegetables listed with a large topping of melted swiss on top. The swiss gave a real nice sharp flavor that worked well with the vegetables. The portion was huge, I don't even think I ate half of it.

My wife had the Risotto of Wild Mushroom and Roasted Squash. I never really "got" Risotto. It's good, and from what I understand tedious to make, but I just don't like it enough to want a plate full. She enjoyed it a lot.

For dessert, I had a sampler of three different crepes. One Grand Marnier, fruit compote, and chesnut puree. All three were fantastic. I like crepes, but many places make them too "eggy" for my liking, I prefer a nice balance and these were perfect.

I absolutely must mention the service. Our waiter was top notch, didn't miss a beat, friendly, cracking jokes, knowledgeable, and even dare I say excited about the menu. The host (owner?) was hilarious and he too was just excited to be there. It was a great, laid back place, an absolute must for everyone (even, foie gras for the Chicago meateaters if you must). We'll be dining there far more often and I regret not dining their sooner.

Also: they have a few tables outside (it's located in a strip mall) and well behaved dogs are not only welcome, they have their own menu!

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Finally, we dined at Sushi Ai in Palatine. This place is fascinating because it certainly doesn't feel like a restaurant located between a Baskin-Robbins and a Dominicks in Palatine. Dark, loud music, a very "hip" feel overall. Apparently this has the same owner or is in someway related to Starfish, a place I've never been to.

The music seemed louder near the entrance, we were seated in the back and while it was still noticeable it wasn't too obnoxious. It may be off putting to some. The restaurant is so dark I felt I was very close to straining my eyes when reading the menu. The drink menu had a page of sakes and a small but appropriate wine and sake list, about half white, half red, and a bunch of sakes. We had a German Riesling that was good.

We started with vegetable tempura which came arranged sort of like a teepee. A couple carrots, a couple string beans, an onion, and a potato. The tempura was good but the sauce, which I believe was an apple ginger was fantastic.

For the entree we had an order of avocado maki, shiitake maki, vegetarian rolls. The avocado and shiitake rolls were the smaller style maki, whereas the vegetable are the larger (about the diameter of one of those old Eisenhower dollar coins).

The avocado chunks were big, the width of a Sharpie pen I'd say, perfect ripeness--not mushy at all, but not too firm. I've had a lot mediocre/bad avocado maki so I'm always a bit hesitant ordering them, but these were ideal.

The shiitake rolls were very good...way back when my favorite dish at Japanese/Sushi restaurants was eel and this reminded me of that. Now, my memory of what eel tastes like is probably a bit off, but this instantly brought back memories of it, and I'd probably return just for these rolls.

The vegetarian rolls were also very good. Big with a few different vegetables...asparagus, carrots, I don't recall what else, but a nice variety.

For dessert I had regular mango ice cream which was so-so, and our friends had strawberry mochi ice cream which they said was excellent. The mochi has an almost marshmallow like layer of rice cake around the ice cream. (I am a big fan of the Mochi ice cream available at Trader Joes).

Our friends are big fans of sushi and they had a few different rolls including spicy tuna which they spoke highly of.

I am no sushi expert, all I really "know" are the rolls you get at Japanese grocery stores, but I definitely enjoyed the rolls and would go back.

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  1. Thanks for the great reviews!

    We absolutely love D&J Bistro, too. Such friendly, warm, and attentive service (I have food allergies, so that is a big issue for me) and a quaint very bistro-y attmosphere. Also amazing food.
    We were a tad disappointed in Topolobompo last time we went (last fall) and don't have the patience anymore to wait in line for Frontera Grill!

    Pam
    in Mundelein