'There's a saying," says chef extraordinaire Rick Bayless, "that every Mexican recipe begins, 'First you brown the onions and garlic.'"
Well, in the themed menu being featured (along with the regular menu) at Topolobampo, that isn't happening. The menu, "Mexico City 1491," presents seven courses ($120, optional wine pairings $80) composed entirely of ingredients that existed in Mexico back when Christopher Columbus was still bumming money from Isabella and Ferdinand.
Themed menus are nothing new at Topolobampo, which comes up with one every month. But "1491" is, in Bayless' words, "the most challenging and exciting menu we've ever done."
As appealing in its boldness as it is in its scholarship, "1491" essentially turns its back on nearly every ingredient that defines Mexican cooking today.
No dairy, wheat or sugar. No black pepper, cinnamon, clove or anise.
"No cilantro," Bayless says, "and that is the definitive herb. No lime, and lime always shows up in dishes for brightness."
And before the Spaniards arrived, Mexico had no domesticated animals to speak of. So goodbye chicken, beef and, most crucially, pork.
"Once you force yourself to take half the ingredients out of a cuisine," Bayless says, "you're challenged to be incredibly creative. For instance, onion and garlic add grounding sweet notes that balance dishes. Once you take them out, you have to find other balancing flavors."
But if the challenge is dealing with what has been taken away, the triumph is enjoying that which remains. It's as though every Mexican cliche has been banished to the wings, placing center stage those ingredients that have been indigenous to Mexico for centuries.
The meal begins with a ceviche, but, of course, this Gulf Coast red snapper can't receive a lime juice cure. Instead, the kitchen splashes the fish with a vinegar infused with pineapple and crimson jamaica flower (a hibiscus variety) and sets it in a dairy-free crema of amaranth and pepita seeds. Paper-thin green amaranth crisps sit on top, essentially hiding the fish from view; moving the crisps to reach the ceviche is like peeling back the leaves of some exotic plant.
Next up is a tamal filled with polenta (softer in texture than corn masa), ember-roasted chayote and frog leg meat, alongside a tepary bean mash topped with cooked tepary beans (which bring a mild nuttiness to the mix) and a salsa of cascabel chili and ground guaje seeds. There are layers of flavor lurking in this brown-on-brown presentation (contrasted with the pearly white polenta and frog), but it takes some concentration to appreciate them all. And a bit more frog meat wouldn't hurt.
After a lovely king crab soup in an herby, corn-based broth with a mild chili spark, come a couple of meat courses, likely the most familiar-looking and familiar-tasting dishes on the menu. First is slow-cooked rabbit, formed into a large square over pureed white sweet potato, surrounded by a vivid and bold-tasting achiote sauce; I could eat this stuff all day. Just as delightful is the venison, beautifully red in color, its gentle gaminess enhanced by a chili chocolate sauce. The sauce ends the savory portion of the menu on a triumphant note, while leading into the sweets that follow.
What pastry chef Jennifer Jones is doing for dessert — absent sugar, flour and butter — is nothing short of alchemy. Her first offering is a gentle, honey-drizzled papaya sorbet with a dairy-free pumpkin pudding and crunchy amaranth alegrias (think tiny energy bars), which is lovely.
Then comes the piece de resistance: Chocolate cake made with mesquite bean meal, ice cream made with coconut and atole (a corn-thickened beverage, usually served hot), coconut espuma and dots of honey-thickened avocado pudding. This dish is astonishing, and I can only hope that it remains on the regular menu for a long time to come.
About the wine: Sommelier Jill Gubesch doesn't have any pre-Columbian wine to pour, but sensibly offers a selection of wines from countries (France, Spain, Italy) that were wine producers at the time. From the premier-cru Champagne that accompanies the ceviche to the concluding vin santo with the chocolate cake, every match is spot on.
This menu, which runs through March 29, likely is not for everyone. The brightness and vibrancy of modern Mexican flavors have been supplanted to a large extent by deep, complex, soul-nurturing ones, and these are flavors that some tongues find difficult to differentiate. Some diners could be forgiven at meal's end for wondering exactly what just happened. Servers, who do explain each dish, probably should be more assertive in tour guide mode; a little extra background would make this culinary journey, which is very much worth taking, a little more revealing.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine" and on CLTV.Topolobampo's 'Mexico City 1491'
445 N. Clark St.