Chicago Sun-Times, March 11, 2005
Frontera Grill: 3 stars
Pat Bruno, Sun-Times restaurant critic
Rick Bayless is an incredible chef, as talented and adept as anyone out there when it comes to cooking Mexican food with passion, total commitment and a style that knows no bounds.
Bayless is also quite adept at marketing himself and his wares. Just inside the front door of Frontera Grill are shelves stocked with caps, T-shirts, salsas, cookbooks and gift sets a virtual company store.
And if you want to see the whole enchilada, go to the Frontera Kitchens Web site (www.fronterakitchens.com) and you will see all of that and a lot more. In some respects, the marketing thing is over the top, but you can't blame Bayless for trying. The restaurant business is fickle, so the mantra being chanted these days is, "Haul it in while you can."
There was a time when I felt that Frontera Grill was working from an attitude of "You are lucky to be eating here." Not anymore. From the help you get on the phone when making a reservation to the front desk to the tableside service, everything is tilted in favor of the customer.
There are a few negatives, noise being one of them. When the dining room is full (and it almost always is), conversation turns into a shouting match. You can avoid some of this din by booking a seat at off-peak hours (try to avoid the two-hour peak at dinner -- 6:30-8:30 p.m. -- if you can).
Another negative (though it is a qualified one) has to do with prices. If you are used to paying a couple of bucks for, say, a taco or an enchilada or tamale, you will be a bit bowled over when you see tacos at $14.95 and tamales at $12.95 (those are lunch-menu prices). Rest easy. You will soon find out that this is money well spent. The quality and goodness of the food at Frontera Grill tower above anything you are ever likely to experience anywhere.
And I can back up that statement based on personal experience. I have been to Mexico countless times and have eaten in some of the best restaurants in Mexico City and beyond. I was also fortunate to have hosted a series of cooking classes for one of the grande dames of Mexican cookery, Diana Kennedy. She introduced me to what real Mexican cooking is all about, and gave me my first encounter with a mole sauce.
The lunch and dinner menus at Frontera Grill are a study in the art of Mexican cookery. Some dishes are enormously complex, while others come straight at you. Straight at you would be the ensalada de jicama, a refreshing composition of crunchy and refreshing jicama that has been plied with oranges, pineapple and grapefruit, with an orange-lime vinaigrette doing the dressing honors.
Complex is the sopas de hongos, a "soup of many flavors." Earthy, woodsy mushrooms (shiitake and oyster) mix it up with pieces of smoky chicken and tomatillos, herbs and roasted nopal cactus. The overall effect is a bit out there.
Tacos al carbon have been on the menu here since Day 1. Usually there are six choices (meat, poultry, fish). At a recent lunch outing with some friends, two were tried -- skirt steak and pork (pastor style). This was incredibly good eating and worth every cent of the $14.95 price. You will go through several homemade tortillas to finish off the generous portion of chunky slivers of tender and flavorful steak. Ditto for the pork, which was in the company of small chunks of charcoaled pineapple (the fruit that gives it the pastor moniker), bits of slab bacon and red onion. Tacos al carbon here are really a total meal (don't call it a combination plate, though) when you consider the inclusion of frijoles charros, guacamole, two salsas and, in some instances, roasted pepper rajas (strips of chiles).
The pescado del dia was cobia (lemon fish from the Gulf of Mexico or Atlantic Ocean) was not the best fish of the day I have had here. Also, the rather mild butternut squash and Oxacan-pasilla chile sauce came off as more contemporary American/French than Mexican (I guess it was the chunks of roasted potatoes and haricots verts that moved it out of the Mexican arena and into the American).
All of the above came from the lunch menu. Dinner choices are no less ambitious or exciting. One of the highlights is the "Mexican Seafood Bar." Here the restaurant trots out a wide range of oysters and seviche. It doesn't get any fresher than this. Quilcene, Olympic and Emerald Cove were the oyster choices. A rainbow of flavors and textures -- mild, crisp, meaty, plump -- the oysters got an escort of scintillating salsas and fresh-cut limes. You would have to look long and hard to find anything this good (or even this fresh) in Mexico.
Under the heading "Especialidades," the culinary energy of Frontera Grill really gets powered up. The great choices include chicken, duck, pork, mahi-mahi, carne asada and chiles rellenos. That last one was a beauty. The menu describes it as "classic, souffle-battered stuffed poblanos (one cheese, one minced pork picadillo) with roasted tomato-chile sauce, black beans and Mexican rice." The menu also notes that the supply is limited. OK, so you're thinking typical chiles rellenos. Think again. The flavor and the fixings from one end of the plate to the other were incredible.
And I would never dine at Frontera Grill without sampling a mole sauce. This time around, it was pato en mole de Xico, a succulent wood-grilled duck breast made all the more luscious with a lusty and dark mole sauce that was redolent of fruit and nuts (Xico is a small colonial town in the state of Veracruz that is famous for its mole sauces). The fruit in this 30-plus-ingredients mole sauce imparted a subtle sweetness and that gave the duck a lot of love. It was paired with a tangy jicama salsa (interesting idea) and white beans that were mashed and given a bit of garlic flavor (frijoles refritos) -- think garlic-mashed potatoes without all that fluffiness. Delicious.
To wind things up, you can go with the sweet-tooth-melting chocolate pecan pie with Kahlua-infused whipped cream. However, the Lenten Mexican bread pudding gets my vote for the dessert to have if you are having just one. Big enough for two to share, this huge puck of pudding was laced to the nines with cherries, figs, apples and raisins. It was moist, flavorful and delicious, and it was served with a scoop of cinnamon ice cream on top.
Pat Bruno is a local free-lance writer, critic and author.
©2005 Chicago Sun-Times