Last night I ate the best meal of my entire life, and really have a renewed respect for Iron Chef judges - especially Jeffrey Steingarten. We had an 8:30 dinner reservation at Topolobampo, Topolo for short, at 445 N. Clark St. in Chicago. We ended up sitting down at 8:00, and didn't complete our dinner experience until 11:00. Yes, I ate for 3 entire hours. I wasn't sure I would be able to finish my 5 courses, but I am very proud to say that I did.
I had the Bravo's Top Chef Master Finale Tasting. Rick Bayless won this program, and while I didn't watch it, did know that it had occurred and that Rick Won. I don't have much time (or rather make much time) for television watching lately, but after eating this meal, I could see myself watching this one. Rick's challenge was to create a menu that represented his food life from first beginning until now. I've long been a great admirer of his, and have cooked many things from his cookbooks. I think I even tackled tamales alone due to the courage his writing has given me. And his recipes for sauces and salsas are constant homemade companions in my kitchen.
Jeff also had a tasting menu, his first, the Adventurer's Tasting. Appropriately, since he tends to try things unusual, when I will not. But before we had set foot inside this beautiful place, I had made up my mind to eat any and everything I possibly could.
The second we entered, was crazy. The whole place smelled of smoky corn, it was like a huge tortillaria. I think I was expecting a more pretentious Chicagoian type place, but instantly I thought I could pull up a chair and live in this restaurant.
I'll let my blurry, dim pictures taken with a borrowed camera
stashed into my bag tell the rest of the story:
The guacamole they gave us right after we sat down was made with Illinois sweet corn and served with jicama and cucumber chips. I may be converted from tortilla chips forever.
My first course was Codorniz estilo Oklahoma Barbecue: Hickory smoked quail with amazing bbq sauce, cornbread croutons, spicy watermelon salad and these amazing red chile threads. It was the first course, so I was feeling really good about demolishing all parts of this dish until only 2 small quail bones remained. It was so delicious. It was hard to get pics of Jeff's food, since my hands were unsteady with excitement, but he had 3 beautiful British Columbia oysters with squid ink caviar, roasted poblanos and crema. Judging from his eyes rolling back, I'd say they were pretty good.
My second course was Atun en Mole Negro: by far the most miraculous thing I've eaten. Seared Ahi tuna in Oaxacan black mole that has 27 or 28 ingredients and takes 3 days to make according to our handsome, attentive waiter, who looked somewhat like a latin Adrien Grenier. It was served with a grilled nopal (cactus) salad, and a plantain filled tamal - and was paired with probably the most delicious wine I've ever tasted: 2006 Bodegas Ateca "Atteca Armas" from Calatayud, Spain. I think if the meal ended here, I would have been satisfied enormously.
Jeff's second course was a Tallgrass ribeye tartare with guajullo chile, red onion, garlic scapes and avocado, also a pretty little quail egg. Also delicious.
The third courses were seafood: Jeff's was Louisanna crawfish and a New England sea scallop in a tremendous verde sauce. Mine was Arroz Negro a la Tumbada: Black rice with Maine Lobster, squid, Prince Edward Island Mussel, grilled octopus and homemade chorizo. The poorly taken picture of my most amazing course is really sad. This course is where I started feeling super full. Still I had to eat 2 of the corn tortillas that I had smelled on the way in, to sop up all of the tomato jalapeno broth. Had to.
I have much happier pics of Jeff eating, but this one kind of shows the background of the restaurant...
And as for me, well, I normally don't have quite so sunken eyes...the red eye reducer was flashing away, and I was worried about attracting attention.
The fourth course was the piece de resistance. Mine was Cochinita Pibil: overnight braised suckling pig "pibil" with crispy pig's foot, sour orange jellies, and a sunchoke pudding brushed onto the plate. If I told you that the pork literally fell apart under the weight of the air, it would not describe how wonderfully tender this was. I was so full by this point, that I had to sacrifice a portion of the puerco to Jeff, who agreed that this was some seriously good eats. I tasted his too, a Barbacoa de Chivo: delicious goat barbacoa with braised garbanzo beans.
Now I must tell you that I truly believe that there is always ALWAYS room for dessert. Jeff rarely eats dessert, and prefers additional food to sweets. I usually like something sweet a couple of hours after supper. But this Fifth course came out, and I really didn't know how I was going to eat another bite. For for the sake of food writing, I persevered. Mine was Tartaleta de Duranzo: Peaches, flowers, and a tart of goat cheese infused with Earl Grey, and toasted pumpkin seed frangipane. After one bite, I nearly finished the rest, only leaving about 2 bites, that really could not find a way to wedge themselves into my overpacked stomach.
Jeff actually finished his, and loved it! A blueberry tart with macadamia nut crust, and a sweet corn ice cream. WOW.
I was so blissfully giddy when we got up to leave, never really having such a dining experience before. I wonder if I'll ever be actually hungry again, and wonder if I can ever cook again since eating such works of art. I've got to hand it to those like Jeffrey Stiengarten who eat for a living...I don't know how they do it. Probably just little mouthfuls here and there, and not nearly licking the plates as I did. But what a wonderful birthday! 33 has to be a great year after a start like this!
Thank you, thank you, darling Jeff.