Sunday, December 11, 2011
While I had been to Rick Bayless' newest place in Chicago, the Mexican street food restaurant Xoco, earlier this year, it had been a very long time since I had been to Frontera Grill. I owed a friend, whose favorite cuisine is Mexican, a dinner out and it was close to her birthday so it gave me an excuse to go there. Frontera Grill specializes in seasonal, Mexican based cuisine primarily using the produce of local farmers. While it does have a lot of the standards, they are very definitely upscaled. While it is possible to make reservations here, the vast majority of seating is by walkup. Unfortunately, because of this, if you want to get a table on any given night, you will need to get there early and expect to wait. First seating for dinner starts at 5 pm and we arrived at 4:30 pm to see about 40 people in front of us. The host came by while we were waiting to get our names and told us that there was one table left for the first seating and we should come up to the host's station to get a beeper at about 5:30 pm and expect seating around 5:45 or 5:50 pm. While the doors open at 5 pm, they use staggered seating so the kitchen and wait staff aren't overwhelmed which would happen if they attempted to seat everyone at once. We were able to enter when the door opened and wait by the bar until we could be seated though so we weren't freezing for over an hour. The restaurant is divided into a dining area and the bar area with a few tables which is where we were when we were seated. There is also a second dining area for Chef Bayless' fine dining restaurant, Topolobampo which is located at the same address but it isn't obvious. The restaurant has a lot of avant garde Mexican art hanging like a couple of very colorful dragon sculptures and a very strange crocodile man in addition to a lot of pottery and textiles. The color scheme is in bright colors and the music is in Spanish. We were seated and while we were able to figure out what we wanted to drink pretty quickly, it took some time to figure out what we were going to eat. We finally decided on a couple of appetizers between the three of us, the Taquitos de Pollo Alhumado which were taquitos filled with smoked chicken, poblanos, and black beans, and served vertically with guacamole on the side and topped with house-made sour cream, anejo cheese, salsa verde, and jicama. It looked nice (even if it was a little dark to take a good picture) and tasted better. It was salty, sour, and a little spicy, with a nice crunch to the tortillas.
Our other appetizer was the Queso Fundido de Hongos. Queso Fundido at its most basic, is melted cheese (which is what queso fundido means). It is normally served with tortillas as an appetizer and has a variety of add ins. Ours included Otter Creek organic cheddar melted with beer-braised mushrooms (wild & woodland), ham hocks, epazote, and habanero chile. It was warm, salty, gooey, slightly funky, and the habaneros added a nice bite to it.
Knowing that I would get a little bit of a hard time for it, I ordered the duck for the entree. While it is my favorite meat, I also wanted to compare the duck served at Frontera to the duck served at one sixtyblue. While both ducks came from local farms,they were both the same breed and both were served medium rare, the dishes were very different. While the one sixtyblue duck used a lot of apple and root vegetables, the Frontera duck was served with mole. To be specific, it was called Pato en Mole de Calabaza and contained Red chile-rubbed Gunthorp duck breast cooked medium rare, pumpkin mole with ancho chile and spices, Spaghetti squash that I actually thought was fideo, grilled onions, brussels sprouts, and toasted pepitas (pumpkin seeds). The meat was tender and savory, the mole was a little spicy and had the pronounced unsweetened chocolate flavor that mole is supposed to have but there was the underlying flavor of pumpkin. The spaghetti squash was both served fried as a garnish to top it off and underneath like fideo (a thin Mexican pasta that is frequently used in soups and served with sauces. Spaghetti squash does have a squash flavor but as it was in the mole that incorporated pumpkin, that flavor was masked. It was a good dish but it would have been a good dish if they had used something other than duck.With the size of the dishes that I had been served, I really didn't need the dessert, but after seeing the dessert list, there really wasn't a question about ordering dessert. We did. We ordered two desserts for the three of us but while we tried both, we really didn't sure our respective desserts. My friend ordered Duo de Flanes, two flans. The first had a fairly standard flavor, if a very good version of standard, Mexican vanilla topped with an ancho-candied orange zest. The other incorporated the orange zest into the flan itself and was topped with a cranberry jicama salsa. They were very good flans but I was looking for something a little different so I ordered something that I had a hard time pronouncing, Buñuelos Navideños. It was described as a Oaxacan Christmas fritter but it reminded me of a fruitcake that had exploded. As I like fruitcake, it played to my palette. It had the crispy Oaxacan Christmas fritters which were like small, round and crispy tortilla chips, spiced pumpkin ice cream, brandied fruit (cherries, apples, apricots, figs) in piloncillo syrup, toasty meringue, and caramelized pecans. It was really good and I thoroughly enjoyed it.I really like Frontera Grill and enjoyed my meal despite the wait. It shows that Mexican food is much more than tacos, burritos, and tamales. I would recommend anyone who enjoys their food a little spicy and doesn't mind the wait to try this place out.