"Food and Wine loves him. The Beard Awards love him. Chicago seems infatuated with each restaurant he and his partners open. The preceding refer to two persons in the Chicago culinary landscape and it was with those thoughts in mind that I decided to make my lunch reservations for my two days in Chicago - Blackbird and Frontera Grill." - copied from my Blackbird review and reused here because it has been true of Rick Bayless for even longer than its been true of Chef Kahan (who once worked for him.) While I will fully admit that I generally do not fancy Mexican food, I have had some good options in the past - most recently the "fusion" French-Mex at Cabrabella's in San Diego - but also in Detroit's Mexican town and LA's Border Grill - and with Chef Bayless' recent win on Top Chef masters I have to admit I was intrigued - just how good can it be?
Intelligently making reservations for two during the brunch service at Frontera my sister and I arrived at the bustling restaurant at 12:10 - five minutes prior to our reservation. After chuckling at the 50+ person-long line at the newly opened Xoco next door we made our way through a sea of persons to the hostess stand at Frontera where we heard the lady in front of us informed that it would be a 2 1/2 to 3 hour wait for a party of four. Checking in our hostess stated "Yes, we've been expecting you - and thank goodness you have reservations!" Led quickly to our seats in the main dining room overlooking the open kitchen we were quickly seated, water was poured, and menus were delivered.
After a few moments our server, an excitable young man appeared and announced that he'd be serving us. With a warm welcome and a couple of recommendations with regard to drinks and appitizers we were left to decide and both my sister and I couldn't help but chuckle - knowledgable, "loud," personable, and all smiles - exactly the sort of server one would expect from a place owned by Chef Bayless. Browsing around the room we were greeted with much more whimsy - from obscure pinata and puppets to unique takes on Spanish art to the jovial latino music over the speakers, nothing remotely "serious" except the focus on food and fun.
Returning shortly our server asked if we had any menu questions and when we responded to the negative he asked if he could take our orders. Not a drinker myself my sister opted for the signature Frontera Margarita with Salt and although she is not a frequent margarita drinker her praise of the item was so headstrong that even I felt the need to taste it. While I can't say I have a ton of experience (two previous 'good' margaritas and a relatively unfortunate experience with a pitcher of frozen margarita in Vegas 2 years ago) I will say that the flavor was excellent and the potent lime mellowed the bite of the alcohol well. Served with the margarita was a bowl of mixed nuts and seeds topped with a spicy chipotle - these went quickly.
After a somewhat prolonged period our appetizer arrived - or rather "appetizers." Strongly recommended by our server as a good way to experience Frontera as a first time visitor we decided to spend the $7.50pp charge for the "Entremes Surtido" an appetizer platter featuring 5 different items. Presented attractively and emitting the most wonderful scents of lime, spice, and cilantro the dish was explained and we decided to taste things simultaneously beginning with the "Taquitos de Pollo" - crispy taquitos filled with chicken, black beans and poblanos, with homemade sour cream, salsa verde, aejo cheese. Pan fried to a crispy perfection the tortillas cracked easily to the bit giving way to a wonderfully creamy blend of moist chicken with accents of spice, sweet, sour, and smooth. Like much latin food I have to say I couldn't separate individual tastes of the amalgam but the overall effect was great.
Our second and third tastes from the platter were "Jicama Callejera," a salad of crunchy jicama, cucumber and pineapple with fresh lime and crushed guajillo chile and "Tostaditas de Ceviche," crisp little tortillas piled with lime-marinated Hawaiian blue marlin, manzanilla olives, tomato, serrano, jicama and cilantro. While my sister didn't really appreciate the pineapple (simply not a fan) I personally thought the salad was excellent in flavor but could've used more textural variation. The ceviche, on the other hand, was a winner in the opinions of us both with the heavily acidic flavor of the meaty marlin smoothed out by the bitter olives while the combination of chopped tomato, ham, jicama, and cilantro added a salsa-esque texture to the well done fish.
The final two components of the platter were a relatively boring (albeit tasty) guacamole with perfectly prepared tortilla chips and "Quesadillas Capitalinas" - Mexico City-style corn masa turnovers stuffed with Samuels locally handcrafted Jack cheese and fresh epazote. Unfamiliar with epazote I honestly didn't know what to expect from this dish and when the folded and fried puffs arrived I certainly was surprised as my only previous experience with quesadillas were the flat versions served at typical Mexican restaurants. Biting into the puffs and met by a rush of gooey, smoky, and pungent cheese I was quite pleased and believe this was my favorite item on the platter.
With plates collected we began the 45 minute wait that would seperate us from our main courses - while I originally hoped we'd not be rushed given the long list of waiting names I have to admit that by 30 minutes I found myself getting a little impatient. While my sister is never bad company we had hoped to get to the smART show and Renegade Art Fair in Whicker Park. Taking a walk to the restrooms while we waited I snapped some pictures of the jam-packed bar and the myriad awards won by Bayless and his restaurants - I was and still am duly impressed. Returning to the table and not yet visited by our server in the last half hour we chatted some more and waited while watching the open kitchen - I only mention this because during at least 2 occasions I watched finished plates sit waiting for delivery for greater than 5 minutes.
When our mains finally did arrive - nearly 80 minutes after being seated, they looked and smelled excellent. Having already had a sweet breakfast my sister opted for the Sapitos - a trio of Xalapa-style gorditas (corn masa cakes) in chipotle-black bean sauce each with its own topping: scrambled eggs, grilled chicken, chorizo and plantains; homemade crema and queso fresco. While certainly not as visually appealing as French cuisine, the myriad colors were definitely noteworthy with eye catching yellows contrasting with blacks, whites, and orange. Tasting each of her gorditas, however, was somewhat disappointing with only the chorizo and plantains standing out and all three being luke-warm at best...as a matter of fact, the eggs were downright cold. While I realize the place was busy, from a place receiving such acclaim this isn't really acceptable.
Accompanying my sister's Sapitos was a side order of "arroz a la Mexicana" - a $3.50 pyramid of mildly spicy saffron accented rice. Something I'd certainly not have ordered myself, my sister loves Mexican rice and was happy with this dish - it was warm.
Never one to get "too much" sweet stuff on vacation I personally debated an egg dish but instead went with the Hot Cakes Indgenas featuring two Iroquois white corn pancakes with whipped goat cheese, piloncillo-agave syrup, grilled bacon and two eggs sunny-side up. Arriving with hot eggs, cool bacon, and luke-warm pancakes this dish once again showed a step of mistiming from the kitchen but thankfully didn't suffer as much as my sister's dish. Tasting like thin and 'almost' crispy cornbread I loved the taste and texture of the pancakes and found them further complimented by the complex and airy whipped goat cheese that tasted like a creamy sweet butter with almond tones. Topping the pancakes with an ample helping of the minimally bitter yet entirely smooth agave syrup was another bonus. As the eggs were organic farm eggs and served piping hot I perforated the yolk of one and allowed it to soak into the pancake while I ate the other sans-addition. The final part of the dish, the locally sourced thick-cut hickory bacon was excellent and not at all overcooked - but as mentioned it was cold.
Furthuring the sweet component of my lunch, "Platanos con Crema" or sweet fried plantains with homemade sour cream and fresh cheese was superb - sweet yet crunchy, smooth and savory, just a touch of "sour" from the cream - a combination I'd never think to prepare but one that worked extraordinarily well with a variety of contrasting tastes, textures, "mouth-feels" that melded well.
Realizing it would likely take a little bit of time but still sipping on my house-blend Intelligentsia (small cups = copious refills, a deal at only $2.50) we decided to split a dessert - a dish that I'd read about in the past and heard was not to be missed. Served after a mere 15 minutes of waiting Frontera's Chocolate Pecan Pie with Kahlua Whipped Cream arrived and was every bit as good as billed. At $8.25 the pie stood more than three inches high and the flawlessly buttery crust held up nicely against the semi-sweet organic chocolate, agave, and pecan filling. Almost maple-y like a true pecan pie yet intensely chocolate the dish was only enhanced in both taste and aroma but the airy cream with high-notes of coffe and spice and a base-note of alcohol. I'd place the pie on the "must try" list of affordable Chicago desserts along with the Elvis at Primehouse.
Completing the meal and feeling quite full we paid our notably modest bill and made our way to the door through the crowd of people now being told there were no more seatings available for the brunch or early dinner. While I realize Frontera has been a big deal for years there is no doubt they've benefited recently from Chef Bayless' win on TCM - or perhaps they've become a little overwhelmed and this may explain the inconsistency from the kitchen in terms of temperature and timing? While I cannot be sure, I've no doubt the restaurant will continue to do well and I have much respect for the Chef's attention to organics and the slowfood movement. In the end some dishes were excellent while others were somewhat average - in general I guess I'm just not a fan of Mexican or Latin cuisine. All told I enjoyed Frontera but do not think I'd rush back - and I certainly wouldn't wait more than thirty minutes for a table.