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May 9, 2008 01:17 PM

Trip Report: North Pond, Topolobampo, Cafe Iberico

Just returned from my first trip to Chicago and wanted to thank all the hounds who helped us have an enjoyable trip. We stayed at the Park Hyatt and found the hotel wonderful and I regret not finding time to squeeze in a meal at Nomi. But alas, we had some wonderful meals:

Dinner at North Pond-
My husband and I were meeting my old college roommate who I had not seen in many years. This was the perfect place to catch up over a nice meal because the space is small, the scenery beautiful, and the noise level is low enough to easily hear. The service was extremely professional. At one point, I attempted to cut through a blanched heart of palm (which was topped with an avocado mousse and served with a tuna crudo) with my fork and, noticing the fork was not doing the job, the waiter immediately came over and delivered a sharp knife without any prompting. Among the dishes we enjoyed the most were the hazelnut crusted frog legs with asparagus, the Atlantic char, and the rabbit. The desserts--an arugula carrot cake and a chocolate gelato and cookie-- were above average, but were my least favorite part of the meal. I would easily recommend North Pond to anyone looking for fresh and innovative food in a relaxing setting.

Dinner at Cafe Iberico-
This was the only night we did not have dinner plans and we wanted something quick and casual as we were exhausted from our day. Cafe Iberico was a perfect fit for us because it was close to the hotel and we could go without changing in to nicer clothes. We started with the goat cheese in tomato sauce, tortilla espanola, and tomato bread with manchego and jamon. All of these dished were very tasty and as good as the tapas places I have visited in Miami and NYC. Encouraged, we ordered some mussels and beef skewers and things went swiftly downhill. I took my first bite of the mussels and had to spit it out because it was rancid. Although the mussel my husband ate was fine and the second one I tried was okay, I could not bring myself to eat any more off this dish. I realize that, statistically speaking, if you eat enough food you are going to get something bad every once in a while but that one bad bite completely caused me to lose my taste for mussels that night. Unfortunately, the beef was dry and flavorless; I wished we would have stopped at the first round of food because those dishes were very good. If I lived near this place, I could see popping in for a dinner with friends as the atmosphere was loud and lively.

I was hesitant to book Topo because I live in Texas and have access to authentic Mexican cuisine. However, Jfood's glowing review convinced me to give it a try and I am so glad that we did.
We started with the complimentary guacamole served with cucumber rounds and jicama. Now, being from San Antonio I feel like I make a darn good guac, but this version put mine to shame. Just the right amount of spice and bright without being citrusy. Yum.
Hubby and I decided to go for one of the three 5-course tasting menus and the waitress kindly let us know that we could sub out any course we wanted. So, my husband subbed out a salad for a bef marrow tamale and I switched my dessert to be a tres leches cake. I greatly appreciated the flexibility of the kitchen as, in my experience, most tasting menus do not allow substitutions. Here is what we ate:

Kona Kampachi "Chimichurri": sashimi-grade Kona Kampachi with green chile, cilantro, garlic, pine nuts, fennel pollen dust, micro-greens and dry Jack chicharron. This dish was AMAZING and I have not been able to stop thinking about how good it was.

(For me) Ensalada Mixta con Pata Negra: Spanish Bellota "Pata Negra" ham with sunflower shoots, microgreens, goat cheese, grilled knob onions, and roasted serrano dressing. Very good, and a light course before getting into the heavy stuff

(For hubby) Tamal de Medula Gratinado: corn masa tamal filled with beef marrow, gratineed with crema and Vela dry Jack cheese. To me, this sounded better than it actually was. I think a sprinkling of cojita would have made it sing.

Langosta al Mojo de Ajo: pan-roasted Maine lobster with red chile olive oil-poached garlic. Giant butter beans, roasted fresh favas and ancho panko crumbs. This was served with tortillas in case we wanted to make lobster tacos, which I did. Delicious and flavorful.

Borrego al Guajillo: rack of lamb in garlicky red chile guajillo sauce with homemade lamb chorizo. Black bean chilaquiles and watercress salad. Yum! At this point we are so full that we can hardly take another bite, but we both manage to eat every last morsel.

As for the desserts, let me say that they were excellent, but by nature I am a purist when it comes to sweets. I don't really love the sweet/spicy combination. I respect it for what it is, but it is not my first choice of flavor combinations--give me plain vanilla any day of the week. That being said...

(For hubby) Trio de Suenos: Mexican chocolate tamal with cacao-nib crunch, tart of dried apricots and plums, and spiced pecan ice cream.

(For me) Pastel de Tres Leches, Sabor a Mole Castellano: traditional tres leches cake infused with hazelnut, ancho, pasilla chiles, sweet spices, and chocolate.

Anyone considering Topo should book a table without hesitation. I will definitely return on a future visit to Chicago.

Thanks Chicago Hounds for helping me have a wonderful trip.

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  1. Thank you for the I'm starving. Sorry about the Iberico experience. I live nearby and go there often, and have had one truly awful dish there, some skate that had been sitting around way too long. No more fish on Sundays for me, ever.

    I find that first dishes you ordered are always winners, and I generally order from the specials menu after a couple a couple of cold starters. The specials change every day and are generally fresher and tastier.

    1. My review isn't near as sophisticated as yours but I just wrote this today-

      I just returned from a week in Chicago and am exhausted! What a great city. I can't wait to return again.

      I spent one marvelous night on my own and ended up having the best meal at the bar at Frontera Grill/Topolobampo. While others waited hours (!) for a table, because I was a solo diner I managed to squeeze in quickly at the wall facing bar even though the place was packed. I brought along the Delta airline magazine as I had started on the crossword puzzle which actually turned into a conversation starter with many near me, LOL. I enjoyed meeting a cardiologist and his wife from WI celebrating their tenth anniversary, a couple from the UK and another couple from Chicago whom we compared notes on everything we ordered. Once the waiter learned I was on my own, he made a point of treating me like gold! He took the time to discuss each dish, and we discussed the flavors and he made suggestions. I never felt rushed and he was very knowledgeable about the dishes. I tried to be discrete with the pictures, so apologize in advance for the quality.

      I started with a good mojito, although as I discussed with the waiter, they're not traditionally Mexican but they're so popular they serve them anyway. The glass ($9.50) was generous with fresh mint and very refreshing. I think I had two. :)

      Next came a starter of jicama, cucumber and pineapple salad ($5) cut into sticks and served with crushed guajillo chile dusted on top, and a couple of lime wedges on the side to squeeze over. I'd never had jicama before although I knew about it. I found it to be similar in flavor to a water logged raw potato yet with a slight tang. Combining it with fresh pineapple and cucumber helped temper the slight heat from the ground chile. It came wrapped in a banana leaf cone inside a parfait type glass, kinda cute. The waiter even gave me tips on how to pick out and buy jicama which I'll probably do this weekend to recreate the salad.

      I ordered the most incredible steak for dinner ($29.50)-
      which Rick Bayless describes as: Carne Asada a la Oaxaquena: Creekstone Natural Black Angus rib steak, marinated in spicy red chile and wood- grilled, served with black beans, sweet plantains with sour cream, and guacamole. I will be craving a repeat of that steak for years to come. How something could be so tender, and flavored with the chile, yet I could taste the wood fire that grilled it. Maybe because we have a gas grill at home I miss that sort of flavor in my steaks (even as good as they often are!) but perhaps it is also the difference between charcoal grills and wood grilled meat? Incredible! Served alongside were some fried plantains (always a favorite of mine) and they had the creamiest sour cream on top of them that I've ever eaten. A bit drier than commercial sour cream-if that makes sense? I'll try to recreate it by draining sour cream in a cheesecloth lined drainer. Black beans were also served but I'm not a big bean eater so I barely touched them (not to mention I was sooooooooo full!) yet...even so full I wanted to try something off the dessert menu too! I selected a trio of some sort of alcoholic infusions mixed with cream and served in three glasses (Trio de Toritos, $10).
      One was guava, one coconut and the last peanut. The guava was quite fragrant yet not particularly sweet. The coconut sweeter, yet not sweetened? The final peanut one tasted slightly sweet, and the waiter confirmed it was made with peanut butter so that is sweetened. They were just too rich on my full stomach so I just wanted to try a sip of each.

      It was painful to walk to my hotel afterwards, I was so full! But it was a delicious meal in a friendly place and worth every penny. I hope if anyone has plans to visit Chicago they'll make a point of trying it. :)
      It could only have been better had I met Rick Bayless himself! LOL