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Monday, September 3, 2007

Frontera Grill

Preparing to leave on a long sojourn to another continent has all the disadvantages of moving and spending time away from loved ones. But it also has the advantages of causing one to really spend quality time with loved ones before departure. On this note, this past Saturday our wonderful friends Chris and Gabrielle Ferrales invited us out to Rick Bayless' Frontera Grill, sister restaurant to Topolobampo. Both restaurants feature Bayless' upscale presentation of traditional Mexican fare. Chris arrived in advance of the restaurant's 5 PM opening to ensure that we could get a table without the normal two hour wait. The meal was a wonderful lesson for the home gourmet on how classic foods from a particular culinary tradition can be elevated and transformed while (ideally) retaining their defining elements. For me, this experience has thrown down a gauntlet: if all other cuisines can be transformed, such that the comfort food of Mexican grandmothers can be elevated to fine gourmet dining, I want to try my hand at transforming elements of the West African culinary tradition in the same way. To my knowledge that has not been done, and I think it a thrilling challenge. More on that later, for now, Frontera Grill...

For starter courses we ordered three plates to share. In addition to the guacamole recommended by Gabrielle, I suggested the trio of ceviches and the pork tamales. The guacamole was nice, on par with other excellent guacamoles I have had in the past. However, because my preference is for guacamole prepared as I learned it while living in Coasta Rica, I prefer it without tomatoes and with a hint more garlic. The table universally enjoyed the pork tamales, although our server informed us that was the last night they were being served, as they are being rotated off the menu as a matter of routine changes. But keep your eyes peeled if they re-appear again.

The big disappointment of the night was actually the trio of ceviches. Having lived for several months on the Pacific coast in Costa Rica, I developed quite an appreciation for this artful dish. I have had a number of different combinations of acid and seafood prepared under the banner of ceviche, and particularly like the watermelon and tuna presentation at Nacional 27. I was eagerly anticipating the trio of ceviches, which all sounded like promising combinations. The presentation in three small martini-style glasses was attractive. However, the execution was utterly disappointing. The taste combinations lacked imagination. Worse yet, the elements combined with the seafood completely overwhelmed the subtle taste of acid and seafood that is the heart of a good ceviche. Furthermore, ceviche should be served "bien picado," perfectly diced, so that each mouthful is an ideal balance of the combined elements. For me, the ceviches were a failure all around.

Gladly, that was the only real disappointment of the evening.

I ordered the carne asada brava, while Gabrielle ordered another carne asada from the menu. My husband Terry, who is an almost legendary ability to select the best dish on the menu, chose the Dorado (mahimahi) and Chris selected the catch of the day, which was a whitefish. I am pleased to report that for once I bested Terry in my menu selection. The carne asada brava was divine. My meat was slightly overdone (I had asked for medium and it came out medium well), but still tender and flavorful. The meat was served topped with a spicy tomato and onion sauce, with a side of sweet corn tamales and sauteed peppers. The sweetness of the tamales was a heavenly compliment to the hearty spice of the meat and peppers. The heat of the spice was artfully done to tantilize the palate without overwhelming the taste buds. I strongly recommend this dish if you are visiting Frontera Grill. I was less impressed with the seafood dishes, which is a shame as I really love seafood. The presentation was a basic arrangement of monochromatic neutral colors. The taste was pleasant but nothing to rave about. My recommendation: stick with the carne.

Dessert delighted everyone. I am a sucker for a good flan and can never resist ordering one if it is on the menu at a quality Mexican restaurant. Chris felt the same, so we put in two orders for the flan. Terry and Gabrielle were both immediately captivated by a Mexican take on a fruit cobbler, combining Michigan peaches with blueberries, a crumble topping, and finished off with a "blueberry taquila ice cream." I was quite pleased with my flan, which had a perfect consistency and a subltly complex combination of flavors. Gabrielle and Terry were similar in raptures about their fruit cobblers. I tried the cobbler and I have to agree that if you like a strong tasting dessert, and favor fruit cobblers, this is not to be missed. My only sadness was the promised blueberry tequila ice cream. If it was indeed flavored with blueberry and tequila, the flavors were much too subtle to stand up to the strong flavors of the cobbler, and so this intregueingly savory combination was lost. Still good however.

Hot drinks finished a lovely evenly of dining al fresco. I ordered the Oaxaca Chocolate (Wuh-ha-kah Choco-la-tay), which I particularly enjoyed. My time in Ghana has built an appreciation in me for unsweetened cocoa drinks, so I found this only slightly sweetened cocoa excellent, although my friends remarked that it was less sweet than they expected. Once again in true form, Terry selected the most noteworthy hot drink to end the meal. He ordered the Cafe de Olla, which came already slightly sweetened, without being notably "sweet," and infused with whole clove. A truly fine way to end a great meal.


Gabster said...

What a fabulous idea--- a gourmet restaurant featuring West African culinary traditions.... if you ever have the opporunity to undertake this adventure-- you will be bringing Chicago a precious gift!

The Skinny Gourmet said...

As much as I like dreaming about it, I don't think the highly demanding work of running a restaurant is in my post PhD future, but I would love to write a cookbook some day. Thanks for the encouragement though!

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