Sunday, August 8, 2010

Frontera Grill

If you look at my XOCO post, you'll notice that I clearly have some kind of obsession with Rick Bayless' cooking. The Top Chef Master has easily become one of if not the most popular chef in Chicago. For those of you that don't know, he has three restaurants on one block in River North. There's Mexican street food at XOCO and very high end Mexican dining at Topolobampo. Most popular of all is his middle ground gem called Frontera Grill. There's a good argument that it's the most popular restaurant right now in Chicago. Maybe it's because they've got their own brand of salsas and chips, or maybe it's because Rick Bayless has taken the city's sustainable food scene by storm.

Either way, you'll never guess who we saw at the restaurant, forever cementing this restaurant's popularity in my mind. I'll give you a hint, he was in such famous movies as Holes and Eagle Eye and found his way into my heart during his starring role on Even Stevens. Well I'm working on my meal when all the sudden I hear my buddy Sam yell out "Go Transformers." I quickly look up to see Shia Labeouf and girlfriend Carey Mulligan giving our table the deadliest death stare of all time. Then I glance over at Marc who looks ready to explode with excitement. The rest of us (Berger, Zucker, and of course The Prince) mostly just tried to keep Marc from falling out of his chair and kept our heads down in slight embarrassment.

The only thing keeping people from Frontera Grill is the wait. To get a good reservation, it can sometimes take a few months advance notice. If you come in without a reservation, you run a serious risk of them not being able to sit you before close. If you're going to try and just walk in, you better do it close to the beginning of dinner service (around 5PM), and expect to wait anywhere up to 3 hours. One thing that's nice is that they have a pretty sweet bar where you can pound a few margaritas while you wait.

We didn't have this issue, however, because we know people. Zucker's aunt is a big wig over at Frontera and works closely with Bayless. With pretty short notice (2 weeks) we were able to get a reservation at 8 PM for 6 people. So, this is the first of many thank yous extended toward Jordan's aunt.

The service is spot on. There's no lack of professionalism, and the waiter had a good knowledge of the dishes, which can be difficult at a restaurant like this with such complex plates. It takes a while to eat here, so you shouldn't expect to get in and out. There was a pretty decent gap between our appetizers and entrees, but you come to Frontera to experience your meal (so no real hurry on our part either).

I came in expecting to spend an arm and a leg on dinner, but was pleasantly surprised by the final bill. The table split two appetizers, one for $9 and one for $17. Everyone had a drink (margaritas were $7-$12, and beers were $5). All of the main entrees were close to $23, and if you want you can get a cheaper dish for closer to $18. After having what I considered to be a very complete meal with drinks, it cost each of us around $45. It's not that I'm saying that's not expensive, but for what you get, it's a steal.

The Food
Lots of drinks were ordered throughout the night, but to give you a taste of what we got I'll talk about my Gold Margarita (sauza gold, cazadores blanco, Gran Torres orange liqueur, and lime juice), and Marc's Summer Margarita (cazadores blanco, lime juice, cane syrup, and muddled cucumber). They were both really refreshing and some of the better margaritas I've had in a long time. I think the key is that all of the non alcoholic ingredients are organic and locally grown. Everything tasted very fresh.

 The Gold Margarita

The Summer Margarita

For our appetizers the table split an order of Frontera Guacamole and the Trio, Trio, Trio. The Guacamole is pretty self explanatory except that it's hyped up a lot at Frontera. The waiter claimed that it was the best in the city, which I would not necessarily agree with. I couldn't tell any difference between it and the guac at Big Star although both are fantastic. It had a very rustic, chunky feel to it, but no matter where I go, I always feel like I wish the guac portions were bigger (it wasn't nearly as small as at Dos Diablos though). The Trio, Trio, Trio is a tasting of the Ceviche Fronterizo (mostly blue marlin, lime, and jicama), Ceviche Yucateco (Shrimp and Calamari based), and Cotel de Atun Tropical (Yellowfin Tuna, Mango Salsa, and Avocado Tomatillo Guacamole). I didn't try the Yucateco, but the other two were great. As someone who can't usually eat ceviche because it's shrimp based, it was a pleasure to have some other options. I'm no the biggest jicama fan, but the Fronterizo was delicious, and the marlin really stood out as the star. I'm a real sucker for tuna, and I could've eaten the Cotel de Atun all night (definitely my favorite part of the meal). It was perfectly balanced between the creamy avocado and the tangy salsa to compliment the tuna.

 The Frontera Guacamole

The Trio, Trio, Trio
(Left: Atun, Center: Yucateco, Right: Fronterizo)

For the entrees Sam got the Cazuela de Pollo en Pipian Blanco (basically Chicken, Corn, and Squash stew), Eric got the Pulled Pork special, Marc and Jordan both got the Fish (wahoo on this day) and Shrimp special in a sweet lobster stock, Berger got the Halibut in Mango Gazpacho, and I got the Roasted Duck with Tamales and Squash. Sam's was a beautiful option for a small plate, and it tasted a lot like the inside of a delicious pot pie. Eric really liked his dish, but didn't necessarily seem blown away. It looked a lot like a deconstructed pulled pork taco from Big Star. The Wahoo was said to have a swordfish like "steaky" texture, but they made it tender. The stock it came in had a kind of liquid smoke flavor to it that I had trouble wrapping my head around. The Halibut melted in your mouth and had an interesting spice rub (I'm not sure if it was that great which is why I used the term interesting). My Duck was tender, and the Tamales were a good textural addition, but it seemed a little bit muddled and bland to me. I think my overall takeaway form the food was that it was rustic. Everything came out a little messier on the plate than I expected, but that's kind of the point here. They aren't going for beauty, they're going for taste.

 The Pulled Pork Special

The Wahoo and Shrimp

The Cazuela de Pollo

The Halibut

The Duck, Squash, and Tamales

Before we even looked at the dessert menu, the waiter started setting the table accordingly, which I thought was very presumptuous. To my surprise, we were given a complimentary dessert from Jordan's aunt (thanks again). It was a lengthy platter with samples of each main dessert including Garden Lavender Flan, Mexican Vanilla Flan, a Fig Tart, and Fig Ice Cream. Each dessert seemed better than the next, but my favorite had to be either the Vanilla Flan or the Fig Ice Cream. I've always thought I hated flan, but this one blew me away.

 The Dessert Platter

There was no restaurant more hyped up in my head than Frontera Grill. I came in think it was an automatic 5 Pearl restaurant. Maybe I was too excited, but it didn't really live up to all of my expectations. I think I tried a good variety of what they have to offer, and many of my friends were in agreement as well. It's very difficult to argue with the large wall of James Beard Awards too. As far as the cost goes, I think it's reasonable, especially because of how Rick Bayless uses so much of their profits to support local farms. Logistically though, because of the popularity it's pretty hard to get in to Frontera, and I'm not sure if it's worth that immense wait. When I went to XOCO, the flavors were clear and in your face with each one building on the next. At Frontera I found many of the dishes to have somewhat muddled spices, and that liquid smoke taste on the fish and shrimp really threw me off. At the same time, there were some real all stars in the meal and every protein was cooked to perfection. Based on those considerations I'm giving Frontera Grill 4 out of 5 Pearls.

I'd like to extend one more thank you to Jordan's aunt and one apology to the cast of transformers.

Frontera Grill on Urbanspoon


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