Frontera Grill is one of those places that you just have to experience and on my culinary Bucket List. Rick Bayless, the Owner / Chef is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, modern Mexican Chef and a perfectionist in every dish he creates, an icon to many. Frontera Grill, along with its slightly more formal sister Topolobampa, occupy 445 North Clark St and grabbing a table is not an easy task. Reservations are only accepted in Topolobampa and are snatched weeks in advance and they are not accepted, or extremely limited, at Frontera. Waits as a walk-in can exceed multiple hours (I was once told the wait would be 2½ hours as a single). When my meetings ended early, I thought this might be my lucky day so I gave it a shot. I arrived at 445PM, the temperature was 5 degrees with the wind chill garnered that elusive minus sign and waited at the door for the appointed hour. Promptly at five the door was unlocked, I gave my name to the hostess, received my beeper and proceeded to the bar area. I was first in line, a twenty minute wait in the incredibly cool bar and I would have a table.
Since I wanted to snap some photos without a flash on my I-Pad (dinner was not planned so camera stayed home) I chose the main dining area, with much better light and a view of the open kitchen.
My server was fantastic. Donning a handle bar mustache, he walked me through the menu, his favorites and answered several of my questions. As I ordered, one end of the mustache raised a touch and he asked, “how hungry are you?” That is the signal that I have ordered exactly the number of dishes that I should, in this case (1) Duck Tacos al Carbón; (2) Goat Barbacoa Enchiladas; and (3) Shrimp in Chilachole (the server’s number one choice).
The Tacos al Carbón included a plate of wood-grilled duck with roasted poblano rajas, guacamole, two salsas with a container [get name of container] of four soft tacos. A scoop of guacamole shared the plate with the duck. My first taste was the guacamole, and it was like none I have ever eaten. It was soft, creamy with nice pieces of tomato and onion, which carried some spiciness. The duck was succulent and full of flavor. I played the first taco safe with some of the red sauce and then kicked it on numbers 2 & 3 with the green. The dish set the bar very high after round number 1 of the night and I knew I was in for more than something extraordinary.
Goat Barbacoa Enchiladas included slow-cooked Kilgus goat barbacoa, “black” pasilla sauce, añejo cheese, and crunchy jícama-olive salsa. From the inside out… the goat was perfectly spiced to medium heat and was moist, and delicious. The mole encased the enchiladas with a deep, rich flavor of the 20+ ingredients that the Bayless mole is famous for. Sitting atop of the covered enchiladas were small cubes of jicama. The boldness of the flavors increased with each taste. When you finished the dish there was a slight spice after-burn which was light and pleasant.
The Shrimp in Chilachole was comprised of adobo-marinated Gulf shrimp, chilpachole (silky lobster broth infused with roasted tomato, chipotle, epazote), little crab-masa dumplings (chochoyotes), roasted chayote, confit radish, and a few crispy epazote leaves. This was the dish recommended by the server and I was extremely grateful for his honestly and his palate. It was so complex in flavors and each bite brought differing flavors, textures and spice. The marinade created a delicious flavor to the moist shrimp and the dumplings were like none I have tasted, almost a Mexican gnocchi in its texture. The diced vegetables were crunchy and flavorful and all of the ingredients were complemented by a slightly spicy sauce. A side of soft tacos are included to assist in enjoying as much of the sauce as possible.
Overall I place my three course culinary extravaganza as one of the most extraordinary exploration of flavors, many I have never tasted before. The complexity of the dishes, the balancing of the heat with the depth of flavors fully support the well agreed to opinion that Rick Bayless is a genius with flavor combinations and a perfectionist in execution.