Vie and Topolobampo - two different experiences from 2/18/10
Shortly after his big win on Top Chef Masters my sister and I found ourselves at Rick Bayless’ Frontera Grill for brunch – while some of the food was excellent some of it was merely average and the restaurant seemed entirely overwhelmed by the number of patrons – service was slow, food came out luke warm...and looking back on it I was luke warm on the experience. Having reassessed my thoughts on food and dining on recent trips and ever impressed by Bayless’ strong ethics and dedication to the slow-foods/organic approach I decided to give him a second chance on this visit to Chicago – a lunch at Topolobampo…surely a plethora of Beard Awards and millions of raves couldn’t be wrong twice.
With the amount of praise heaped on Bayless I think may have gone into our previous meal at Frontera with unrealistic expectations, especially since I generally don’t favor Latin/Mexican cuisine – as such I left my expectations at the door this time. Arriving slightly late for our reservation after getting lost on Lower Wacker and subsequently searching for parking we were greeted by the same pleasant hostess I met last time and immediately led through the lively (and jam packed) Frontera to a small table in the much more quiet and refined (but equally packed) Topo. From the moment we sat down the feel was distinctly different from Frontera – music was low, conversation were quiet, servers were present without being overbearing.
Greeted by a pleasant young woman moments after seating we were provided with the ever-rotating monthly menu and offered a wine/cocktail list which we declined. Selecting tap water our heavy (and clearly hand blown) glasses were filled and my aunt additionally ordered a carbonated lime-aid that was quite tasty. As we browsed the menu another server stopped in and presented us with complimentary chips (still hot, thick, salty, and delicious) and a savory onion laden guacamole. While I’m rather certain this was the same guacamole as served at Frontera last year I found it much more delicious this time and even my aunt who doesn’t prefer avocados liked the smooth and balanced flavor.
Orders placed we sat back and chatted until our first courses arrived – a mere 10-15 minutes. For my Aunt’s first course she selected the Ensalada Topolobampo described as a salad of young organic greens with cilantro, garlic croutons and dry Jack cheese, in creamy lime-serrano dressing. Cold, crisp, perfect I was quite impressed by this dish mostly because I generally do not favor the overpowering effect of uncooked cilantro. Graciously accepting a couple of bites from my aunt I was additionally impressed by the smooth manner in which the creamy and acidic lime dressing worked with the sharp jack.
For my first course I was excited to see one of my favorite items – sweetbreads. Described in longwinded fashion as Mollejas a la Yucateca - crispy sweetbreads glazed with orange, achiote and habanero, Mexican chimichurri (infused with cilantro and epazote), roasted Spence Farm turnips, pickled red onion this dish was wonderful in every way. Featuring four large sweetbreads perfectly breaded and pan seared the dish was substantially spicy yet balanced with the sweetness of the orange to allow the characteristic taste of the glands to peak through. The addition of sweetened onions and crispy turnips added additional contrast and a clean vegetal component that balanced the heat and sweet – a very well thought out presentation.
Plates collected we once again waited only a short while before our next courses arrived – not too fast, not too slow – and perfectly warmed, presented, detailed, and explained. For my Aunt she opted for soup to follow her salad and we were both amazed by the aroma as Sopa Azteca featuring dark broth flavored with pasilla, with grilled chicken, avocado, Meadow Valley Farm hand-made Jack cheese, thick cream and crisp tortilla strips was finished table side. Not absurdly overflavored of tomatoes like most tortilla soups this delectable potage was nearly a stew texture with the excellent tortillas holding up to the moisture and heat and prominent notes of spice mellowed by the cheese, cream, and avocado. In addition to the fantastic soup my aunt was brought four excellent whole grain flatbreads for dipping – I fully admit to eating most of them.
For my main course the selection was easy – pork and bread pudding on the same plate couldn’t possibly fail. Entitled Puerco en Clemole and featuring “Roasted pork in old-fashioned clemole castellano (dark dried chiles, pecans, pinenuts, hazelnuts, avocado leaf). Calabaza en tacha (sugar pumpkin) bread pudding and Caramelized Brussels sprouts” my only complaint about this dish was that I couldn’t get the bread pudding as a dessert. Flawless pork loin that was as close to “melt in the mouth” as pork can be paired beautifully with the spicy yet nutty sauce while the sweet and intense bread pudding melded beautifully with the savory sprouts.
Thoroughly impressed by the experience thus far dessert was an easy yes – and so was coffee – and then some. While fully admitting to a borderline unhealthy caffeine addiction I will note I’ve had some great restaurant coffee – Daniel, The Modern, and Gramercy Tavern most notably – and I’d rank the press pot at Topolobampo on par with any of them. Intelligentsia roasted 100% organic beans from Yeni Navan-Michiza, Oaxaca the coffee was flower and honey, cocoa and nutty, smooth yet bold - unreal complexity. Expensive for sure I asked if this blend (bear in mind this is not the same as the house blend) could be purchased and I was told that unfortunately it could not – but I was given the address of the Intelligentsia flagship store so that I could look for something similar.
For dessert I allowed my aunt to select first and she opted for the Chocolate y Datiles – a Gooey steamed Mexican chocolate pudding cake with malted chocolate date ice cream, warm date cake with orange crema, shaved fennel and dates. As complex as it sounds this dish featured two types of cake - both of which were served warm, moist, and sumptuous – topped with a smooth and fruity chocolate ice cream, mildly acidic orange cream, and most wonderfully the fennel that served to enhance the other flavors but also left a glossy vegetal taste on the palate – not since the addition of black olive to a creamsicle at Providence has a vegetable been used so nicely in dessert.
With my aunt selecting my first choice I opted to go the other way and skip chocolate entirely. Presented elegantly the Membrillo con Biscochitos featuring warm brown-butter cake with crumbled shortbread biscochitos, Jamaica-poached quince and brown-butter ice cream was excellent, albeit not quite on par with the Chocolate y Datiles. Somewhere between a soufflé and a pound cake in texture the brown-butter cake was more savory than I expected with elegant notes of salt and caramel folded into its buttery and airy texture. Proving a perfect foil to the savory aspects was intensely sweet poached quince and somewhat bitter but sweetened and smooth ice cream.
Sitting back and enjoying the rest of my coffee I was not only happy but amazed – while I attempted to check my expectations at the door there was clearly some apprehension going into Topo after our experience at Frontera – apprehension that was clearly unwarranted and dissipated after my first taste of the guacamole giving way to excitement and delight with each subsequent dish. While the prices were certainly somewhat more expensive than the casual Frontera I can say without a shadow of a doubt that I now “get” the obsession people have with Bayless and while I may not be a “casual Mexican” kind of guy I truly appreciate his skills with their subset of spices, dishes, and techniques.
Pictures in the blog at http://uhockey.blogspot.com
445 N Clark St., Chicago, IL 60610
For the last meal of my vacation I volunteered to take my aunt someplace nice – we’d originally planned on Graham Elliot but their seasonal menu change left little to my Aunt’s liking and as such a change was needed. Having been to many of Chicago’s top tables over the past year and hearing glowing reviews of a place called Vie “out in the ‘burbs” I looked into the restaurant only to realize it had very recently been named to Gayot’s Top 40 restaurants in America – a quick look at the weekly rotating menu showed some great items and beautiful desserts, plus if things changed up leaving my Aunt’s limited palate unhappy there was always their much celebrated burger. Reservations made for 7:30pm we figured it would be safe to leave around 6:00 or 6:15 given the rush hour traffic – thankfully we decided on 6:00 and arrived only moments before our scheduled seating.
Driving up to the small building I have to admit I was surprised when we entered to find the restaurant less than 1/4 full – I was also surprised by the extensively modern décor – dark woods and steel aplenty, stark and minimalistic to say the least. Given chef Virant’s pedigree (Blackbird, for one) I guess the design made sense, but given his locavore focus on farm-to-table foods and home-style techniques like pickling and canning I guess I expected something more rustic. Greeted at the door by a young lady we were promptly led back to our table, a small booth/chair two-top in the main dining room, and waited a short while before being greeted by our server – Maureen. Offering cocktails or wine (we declined) and presenting us with the 8x11inch loose leaf-on-clipboard menu we ordered drinks - iced tea for aunt and coffee for myself and perused the menu.
Returning quite rapidly with water we were asked if we were ready to order – literally only three minutes after we received the menu. Thinking this odd I said we were still looking and subsequently watched her (and later Chef Virant) attend to another table that was enjoying a tasting menu…a tasting menu we were never offered and saw no indication of either in-house or on the website. Returning again we attempted to place our orders only to be told the Burger was not available because “the chef doesn’t want to be known as a burger joint so we only make a few every night and they’re already sold out.” Apparently there were lots of things to know about Vie that are not announced, detailed on the menu, or on the website. My aunt somewhat off-put by this fact went back to consulting the menu and to be fair I’d have considered leaving had it not taken so long to get there (not to mention the tolls.) With decisions finally made we placed our orders, though certainly not the things we’d planned on when we consulted the online menu earlier that morning.
After a short period of time our drinks arrived (note, given the ordering difficulties it was already 25 minutes into the meal) and shortly thereafter the nightly amuse arrived featuring cured Trout, Creme Fraiche, and Pickled Cabbage. A tasty albeit safe bite I enjoyed the interplay of the smooth trout and sour crème fraiche with the added vegetal component of the cabbage – it tasted not entirely dissimilar from good coleslaw. In addressing the drinks – the coffee was bold and the nutty accents complimentary to the food while aunt stated her tea was very good.
With our server off helping with the tasting our bread arrived next via a young man who never spoke a word during our stay at Vie. A well prepared whole wheat with sweetness that I believe was derived from honey, a good crumb, and excellent crust I have to say the bread was excellent and the house butter was served in very small pats with a grassy taste and smooth texture that worked well with the bread. While I will note that another serving of bread required prompting (as did my first refill of water) the ancillary servers did an excellent job thereafter in keeping up with our table.
Beginning our appetizers, first for my aunt was perhaps the most “signature” item at Vie outside of the Burger. Titled crispy parisienne gnocchi, black trumpet mushrooms, black truffle butter, pickled and roasted carrots, prairie fruits farm fresh chevre the dish smelled wonderful with the heavy essence of truffle rising from the plate and mingling well with the buttery tones. Thick and plump my aunt had never had pate a choux gnocchi before and was appropriately surprised by the difference from potato gnocchi. Tasting a sampling of the dish I have to say the balance of the dish – sweet carrots versus creamy goat cheese, crispy gnocchi against smooth and earthy mushrooms – worked well but the overall texture of the dumplings was just a tad too gummy for my liking. The truffle butter, however, was marvelous.
Feeling gluttonous I opted for two appetizers – both items I feel compelled to order each time they are offered. While I was a tad put off by them being delivered simultaneously for the simple fact that one would get cool as I consumed the other, I guess I didn’t specify I wanted them coursed out…then again, it is not as though Vie was hurting for tables or in a time crunch, either. Tasting first the coddled yuppie hill farm fresh egg, périgord black truffles, organic crème fraiche, wood-grilled bread dish I have to say I was disappointed. Having had all three of the components multiple times in the past I could taste each ingredient in abundance but the overall effect was somewhat dull – for the first time in a fine dining establishment I actually considered asking for some salt.
Faring much better than the egg was the seared au bon canard foie gras, pistachio blini, cherry and balsamic gastrique, wood-grilled Wisconsin shallots, roasted pistachios – as a matter of fact, it was exemplary. Flawlessly cleaned foie gras – sweet and unctuous to bite – was balanced brilliantly by the nutty blini and tender whole roasted pistachios. Further enhancing the dish and highlighting the smoothness of the foie and blini were crisp and smoky shallots while the whole dish was brought to the front of the tongue by the sweet and acidic cherry vinegar.
Plates collected the Chef made his way from the kitchen again and carried on a lengthy conversation about sourcing local chickens and livestock with the table receiving the tasting – he then stopped by our table and stated “I hope you are enjoying everything – thanks for coming out” before heading back to the kitchen. Shortly thereafter our main courses arrived and much like the foie gras they were both beautiful examples of what a talented chef can do with high quality ingredients.
Beginning first with my aunt’s dish I was excited because I knew there was no way she’d eat a part of it – and it was something I’d earmarked on the menu that morning as a must taste. Not normally one to order “pork” my aunt opted for this dish first because of the lack of the burger and secondly because she loves ham. Arriving as a rustic presentation, Crawford Farm pork combination of porchetta, hearth sausage and tasso ham, braised cranberry beans, golden turnips and pickled ramps, pork jus was a lovely dish full of flavor, spice, and three entirely different tastes of pork. Favoring the lean ham and spicy sausage my aunt passed off the fatty porchetta to myself and – well, let’s just say there aren’t too many things quite as bad for your heart and great for your palate as porchetta following foie gras. Balancing the savory aspects of the pork were flawless beans, crunchy sweet turnips, and acidic first of season ramps.
With aunt ordering the pork I’d originally planned on I decided to try something new and went with the chef’s highly touted seared Hawks Hill Ranch elk tenderloin and crispy elk summer sausage, Ted’s organic cornmeal spaetzle, black trumpet mushrooms, roasted Michigan parsnips, and preserved huckleberries. With an appropriate gamey flavor not unlike that of venison the lean elk was prepared medium and had the texture of pork loin without any sinew or fattiness at all. Balancing the lean loin was a fatty and spicy round of crispy fried sausage that (like the porchetta and pork sauage) left me wondering how my egg dish was so bland when the chef was clearly so talented with salt and spices. Resting beneath the loin and adding an earthiness to the dish were several pan-seared mushrooms and a chewy (and unfortunately somewhat bland) spaetzle while the topping of the dish was a sublime reduction of sweet yet acidic berries and smoky slices of parsnip.
Finishing our mains Maureen returned and after refilling our drinks asked if she could interest us in desserts. Debating making an early exit and heading to Hot Chocolate for dessert we decided to look at the menu and a single option made staying obligatory for my aunt. I too had no trouble finding something that sounded delightful. Beginning first with aunts selection - Baked Butterscotch Pudding, Toasted Walnuts, Whipped Cream, Vanilla Ice Cream I can’t say I was wowed – it was a warm pudding cup – but Aunt was very pleased and that is all that matters.
For myself the choice was “Chocolate Sour Cream Cheesecake, Cocoa Graham Cracker, Candied Klug Farm Sour Cherries, White Chocolate and Cherry Bark, Caramel Sauce” and it proved to be not only a study in chocolate colors, but also a study in the nuances of good chocolate. Creamy and luxurious but mildly sour the cheesecake itself was served as a mound overtop a dark chocolate graham cracker- the combination focusing heavily on the cocoa notes of the dish. Alongside the cake were sweetened sour cherries that tasted divine on their own but moreso served to awaken the fruity tones of the chocolate. Finally, a drizzle of caramel highlighted the cheesecake’s more floral tones and finishing off the dish I ate the bark on its own – the tart cherries highlighted by the smooth white chocolate.
Finishing our desserts we were brought the bill – pricey but not out of line for the quality of the preparation and passion of the ingredient sourcing. Delivered with the bill were two cream puffs that our server described as ethereal – the best she’d ever had…they were good, but I’d not go that far.
In looking back on our meal at Vie I most assuredly say that aside from the egg everything we had was good or great – Chef Virant is clearly a talented man worthy of all his awards and praise. That noted, there is just something about the front of the house at Vie that did not work for me – the room did not fit the food, the service was unpolished (our server really no better than one at Denny’s or Fridays,) and policy such as not offering the tasting and not informing us regarding the burger just seemed out of place for fine dining. Certainly not as impressive as the top tables of downtown Chicago I personally found Vie to be more comparable to Blackbird, though I preferred the later. A good meal, sure, but with all the great chefs, restaurants, and experiences in the greater Chicago area I just can’t see making that trek again.
Pictures in the blog at http://uhockey.blogspot.com
4471 Lawn Ave, Western Springs, IL 60558
Thanks for a wonderful account of your two nights dining out in Chicago land. You take people on an incredible journey with the words you write. If only I could get my point across as well as you when writing about food.
What other restaurants have you been to? What is on your list of places to try?
thanks for sharing!