Up early for an early start. We want to be in Chicago for lunch. Time is short and we want to experience as much of Chicago’s offerings as possible. It is a cool 59 degrees. I do not acclimatize backwards well and am longing for the 106 degrees of last week. The two-hour drive is pleasant enough: cows, cornfields, pale bleached-out skies, tall, yellow wildflowers and on our approach to the city, oil refineries and industrial complexes and then …that famous Chicago skyline.
Lunch is at Lou Malnati’s, famous for it’s authentic deep-dish Chicago pizza. We neglected to eat breakfast on purpose knowing we were headed here. The restaurant is warm and it’s nice to get out of the chill air.
The wood, exposed brick walls and honeyed oak flooring are welcoming. Our section is decorated with White Sox paraphanalia. We order an Antipasto Salad and a 9″ “Malnati Chicago Classic” to share. Sausage, cheese and vine ripened tomato sauce on what Lou Molnati’s calls “buttercrust”. Simple. Chicago-style pizza is upside down by most measures. The cheese is laid down first, then raw sausage meat is pressed into the cheese, the pie is topped with tomato sauce and baked. I decide to try a local wheat Ale from Goose Island called “312”.
The antipasto salad is an excellent chopped vegetable salad of romaine and iceberg lettuces, Volpi salami, roast beef, provolone, black and green olives, pepperoncini peppers, red onion, ripple cut carrots, giadineria, red-wine vinaigrette and fresh-baked croutons. Personally I would leave out the deli roast beef. I find it had that “preserved” taste. I would have loved to have the salami cut in chunks instead of thinly sliced for better flavour and texture, and the homemade croutons were indistingishable from commercial. If you are going to go to the trouble of making your own croutons, make them a little bigger. They get toasty crisp outside and softer but still chewy inside. The tomatoes on the plus side were full of flavour and the slightly sweet vinaigrette dressing complimented everything nicely.
The wait for pizza is fairly long, twenty minutes or so. This is because it is being baked fresh and needs to cook the sausage. It finally arrives at our table, bubbly and red, served up in a deep dish pan that has darkened with age and baked on goodness.
Our server dishes out a piece each, trailing gooey cheese. It’s every bit as good as it looks. The Italian sausage is sweet and mild and the tomatoes are full of fresh, just-crushed flavour. The crust was firm and crispy, but also rich and buttery. It’s a crust we don’t normally associate with pizza, but it’s utterly delicious.
We spend the remainder of the afternoon unpacking, making a few plans for our stay in the windy city and I caught a nap. We plan to head out to Rick Bayless‘ Frontera Grill for dinner. Bayless is a favorite of ours. His approach to Mexican reflects his superstar chef instincts while remaining true to the origins of the cuisine. Frontera does not take reservations and the wait can be upwards of two hours so we decide to go early. There is a wait already at 5:15 just after opening. We sit at the bar.
I order a margarita which is a treat because it is a “real” marg made with lime juice and tequila, not a sody-pop marg. Maybe you American readers wonder why I go on about real margs, but in my home city of Ottawa it is damn near impossible to get one. My fellow Ottawans would be appalled to be served this small, light coloured drink where you can taste the tequila bite and the bitter-sweet lime when they order a margarita. They want Margaritaville. But I digress. Rob ordered a Michelada Moderna, which was extremely refreshing yet spicy. It’s a bottle of crisp beer (in this case, Pacifico, a Mexican favourite) poured in a large glass. Lime juice, tomato juice, a little hot sauce and spices are added and then the glass is rimmed with a chipotle salt and a lime slice. Crisp, refreshing and spicy. Each sip makes you want another, and it wakes up the taste buds for an excellent meal to come.
As we await our table we note that the Grill has a hip Mexican vibe. Decorated in warm reds and golds, with bold vibrant art and wall sculpture and tile floor, it is upscale but unpretentious. Staff is friendly and helpful. Our beeper goes off before we finish our drinks and we move to a table.
For apps we decide to share the 1/2 Grand Seafood platter, which consists of 6 oysters and their accompaniments, ceviche and tropical tuna salad, along with with cornchips to scoop the ceviche. The dish is an artfully arranged bed of ice featuring 6 oysters of various sizes, with a tomatillo-habanero mionetta and a smoky chipotle galic salsa, ceviche fronterizo of lime marinated albacore tuna with tomatoes, olives, cilantro and green chile, and a tropical cocktail of sashimi grade yellowfin, avocado-tomatillo guacamole and melon salsa.
I love oysters with traditional cocktail sauce and occasionally a french mignonette and sometimes a dash of scotch. But I generally stick to classic cocktail. The accompaniments at Frontera were a revelation. The fresh tomatillo-habanero sauce livened up the briney oysters and the smokey chipotle salsa really stood up to and complimented one of the oysters specifically that was quite full-bodied in taste. The ceviche was bright with lime and cilantro but had no heat. The tuna cocktail was visually pleasing with jewel like cubes of tuna and fresh with sweet cantaloupe.
For mains, I asked my server to decide between the shrimp and the chicken. Frontera’s menu is a rough one for me. Usually, even at a high-end eatery, one or two choices jump off the page at me. Frontera’s menu was climbing into my lap – too much good stuff going on there. He is also indecisive, but mulls it over for a bit and decides I will have the chicken, Pollo en Mole Amarillo. Rob orders the Carne Asade a la Oaxaquena.
The chicken was an awesome choice. The small, char-grilled boneless breast, sliced, and served with a green mole that is complex, fruity, lightly sweet and with a little mild heat, comes with delicious poblano mashed potatoes. The creamy spuds have a few chunks and a mild poblano chili flavour and heat. They are also excellent with the mole. The dish is presented with some nicely sauteed spinach I assume for additional colour, but I found the strong taste incongruous with the dish. It did however provide a bitterness that can cut the sweet of the mole, I just didn’t find it necessary. Also unnecessary and difficult to eat were the fine shreds of fried onion. They were perfectly cooked, tasty and provided visual appeal and crunch. Not complaining, but they could have been left off in favour of more of the fabulous mash.
Rob’s carne was marinated in spicy red chile which served to add depth and only a little heat. The wood grilling provided a ton of flavour although neither the grilling nor the marinade masked the excellent quality of the beef. The standout side dish was the sweet plantains with sour cream and a slightly salty Mexican cheese crumbled on top. The black refried beans were nicely spiced with great texture.
At this point I have serious happy mouth, that nice satisfying burn. But I plunge onward and order dessert. I joke about whether or not I will get the chocolate lava cake, churros, or deep-fried ice cream which typify Mexican dessert menus. Of course, none of that is on the menu. Fontera’s dessert menu is once again, too much for me. I’m bad that way. Give me one option and I’m good. Anyways, since we are sharing dessert, I give Rob FOUR options off the menu and make him choose. Luckily for him, he chooses right. Donitas. Perfectly deep fried donut balls with zuchini bits in the batter and a delicate cinnamon-sugar crust accompanied by sugared ribbons of zucchini, walnuts, which were hot and softened and without bitterness due to a little roasting, and toasted cinnamon ice cream. Need I say more.
I ordered a Cafe Tacuba, blanco tequila, Kahlua and espresso coffee, shaken over ice table side and served in a martini glass. Iced coffee with a tequilla bite. Rob had a chocolate cappuccino, which was strong and lightly sweet and over which you could smell the roasted toastiness of both the coffee and the Mexican chocolate.
An excellent meal by any standards.