Rick Bayless: responsible restauranteer, prolific tweeter, Top Chef Masters contender, University of Michigan ABD anthropology student, multi-time JBF winner/nominee (who said, “Here I am, a gringo cooking Mexican food in a pretty casual restaurant” when he won Chef of the Year in 1995), cool dude.

    Now that I’ve tasted his food (twice), I’m completely sold.  Rick’s fantastic.

    We ate at Frontera Grill on our last day in Chicago.  The wait was perfect (projected: 60-75 minutes; actual: 15 minutes), the staff friendly, and the restaurant filled with colorful Mexican decorations.  Don’t be surprised by the casual atmosphere.  This place doesn’t exactly have table linens, and the floor is tiled.  Most JBF winners for outstanding restaurant, like Jean Georges in 2009,  couple food you’ve never heard of with impeccable decor.  Compare below:

    Frontera Grill

    Frontera Grill

    Jean Georges

    Jean Georges

    I’m all about fancy (and will admit to shelling out a couple hundred for dinner…for just myself), but this atmosphere was perfect for us as we were traveling home immediately after we ate.  (We actually sat at the table for two on the far left in the photo.)

    The brunch menu was unsurprising–lots of eggs dishes, chorizo toppings, and chili sauces–but the look and taste of each condiment, reduction, chip, and garnish was utterly divine.  We were also pleased that each dish was nicely portioned.  From Frontera’s brunch menu, our picks:


    Entrems Surtido

    Entrems Surtido: appetizer platter of cheesy quesadillas, crispy chicken taquitos with sour cream, tangy ceviche tostadas, crunchy jcama salad and guacamole; FOR TWO OR MORE ONLY. 7.50″

    Translation: perfectly placed whole basil leaves in little fried half-moons of cheese; crispy, moist shredded chicken; tender, sweet, heavenly scallops; and the best tasting jicama ever.

    Frontera Masa Boats

    Huevos Estilo El Bajo

    Huevos Estilo El Bajo: two poached eggs in crispy masa boats with black beans, creamy chile poblano sauce, Mexican greens and homemade chorizo. 10.50″

    Translation: had-no-idea-eggs-could-taste-this-flippin’-delicious poached eggs topped on a gourmet, corny English muffin (and this really is a compliment as it’s one of the best dishes I’ve ever, EVER tasted), or reinvented poached eggs over brioche.

    All Gone

    Sapitos, All Gone

    Sapitos: a trio of Xalapa-style gorditas (corn masa cakes) in chipotle-black bean sauce, each with its own topping: scrambled eggs, grilled chicken, chorizo and plantains; homemade crema and queso fresco. 10.50″

    Translation: Is it rude–fully realizing that I’m ready to pay and don’t know any of the people surrounding me and will likely never see them again–if I lick the plate?  I came so close…

    Summer Margarita

    Summer Margarita

    Summer Margarita: 3 Generaciones blanco tequila, muddled organic cucumber, fresh lime juice, organic cane syrup. Shaken at the table. 10.00″

    Translation: Fresh, fresh, fresh. I want these every single day.

    I’ve always been a big fan of Mexican food from places like El Zarape, El Vaquero, and Pancho’s Southwestern Grille, but Frontera Grill is in a league of its own.  I never knew Mexican food could be so amazing.


    We spent the better part of last week in Chicago, and our trip was fantastic.  There may be more reporting on Frontera Fresco, Pizzeria Due, Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak, & Stone Crab, and, especially, Frontera Grill, but for now, I’d like to celebrate one of the best, cheapest meals I’ve had in a long time.  We ate lunch at an Indian diner called Chutney Joe’s.

    Metromix Chicago’s review of cheap eats in the city provided us with numerous ideas, but given our hotel’s proximity to our plans for later that day, Chutney Joe’s had the best location.  This fast food-ish restaurant serves just a few delicious, traditional Indian dishes, the location is convenient (State Street, South Loop), it’s clean, and the servers are friendly, helpful, and even offer great deals that aren’t posted on their menu.

    While the $7.99 two-entrée combo with naan or rice already sounded like a steal to us, our server presented us with a better deal: try four small portions of meat/veggies and rice and a 1/2 a portion of naan at the same price.  I’m the queen of sampler platters, trios, tapas–really anything that allows me to try lots of things during one meal–so we immediately accepted her offer.  With this option, we sampled nearly everything on the menu.  The beef korma, lamb rogan josh, gobi potatoes, spinach paneer, and kali daal were all quite good, but the real winners were the amazingly tender chicken tikka masala, the perfectly-spicy pork vindaloo, and the creamy garbanzo masala.  Even their chutneys paired well with each dish.  (We tried the mango and Indian pickle, and both were superb.)  With the garlic naan and the whole wheat naan and the mounds of basmati rice, we weren’t able to finish everything.  The “tiny” portions were actually quite hefty.

    Will our next trip to Chicago include a meal at Chutney Joe’s?  Yep.  Somehow, they’ve made fast food Indian work, and work well.

    Chutney Joe's

    Amuse Bouche: English Peas in a Pad

    Amuse Bouche: English Peas in a Pod

    Soy, miso, basil, and a presentation that reminds me of slurping oysters, Stephanie Izard’s amuse was delicious.  I was immediately ready for more.

    Last night, we ate at Revolver, a tiny, trendy-ish, itty bitty restaurant in Findlay (of all places), led by Michael Bulkowski.  Chef Bulkowski certainly deserves the praise he’s earned: 2008 James Beard Best Great Lakes Chef finalist, 2001 James Beard Best New Restaurant winner for Spring in Chicago, etc.  Pair his resume with the winner of Top Chef’s fourth season, Stephanie Izard, and the result will likely be a success.

    We were quite pleased with Friday’s five course pre fixe dinner.  The chilled onion soup with lobster was nicely presented, and the moulard duck breast, while not my favorite meat, was well- and interestingly-paired with strawberry-rhubarb agrodulce (fancy for sweet + sour).

    My favorites were the perfectly cooked Maine scallops with a pistachio-wild leek butter and the blueberry lemon ice cream that was sweet and tart and tangy and fresh.

    Chilled Sweet Onion Soup with Maine Lobster & Tarragon

    Chilled Sweet Onion Soup with Maine Lobster & Tarragon

    Stephanie also served shaved Brussels sprouts, and they were okay.  The goat cheese–which reminded all of us visually of deli turkey–was the real treat in this second course.  The Carr Valley Cocoa Cardona goat cheese is actually coated in, yes, chocolate.  While I never thought to take the name seriously, I really didn’t taste the cocoa rub on the edge of the thinly sliced cheese.  I think I prefer hot Brussels sprouts.

    Shaved Brussels Sprouts with Carr Valley Cocoa Cardona Goat Cheese, Trumpet Royale Mushrooms, Basil, Lemon, Maple Syrup, & Extra Virgin Olive Oil

    Shaved Brussels Sprouts with Carr Valley Cocoa Cardona Goat Cheese, Trumpet Royale Mushrooms, Basil, Lemon, Maple Syrup, & Extra Virgin Olive Oil

    All in all, I’ve had a few better meals–the AAA 5-diamond Victoria & Albert’s, the currently closed to be renovated Dux, David Chang’s Ssam Bar and Noodle Bar, and Rossford’s Moe’s Bar and Grill.  But if Stephanie should return, I’m sure we’ll make a reservation.