July 21, 2007

Frontera Grill [Chicago]

I can think of no better way to kick off a vacation than with an exceeded expectation by Rick Bayless' Frontera Grill, which has been lauded as the best upscale Mexican in the country. Though we barely put a dent in the menu, we liked what we saw and first impressions matter most.

My gal pal wasn't feeling up to a full meal and ordered the Jicama Cellejera ($4.50), which was an appetizer-sized portion of sliced cucumbers and jicama dusted with achiote, lime, and pineapple juice. Some of the jicama pieces on top were doused with the overpowering spiciness and GC ate all of the pineapple pieces before I could try the dish in its entirety. My incomplete verdict is to render the dish nothing too special, though the combination of peppery achiote, tangy sweet pineapple, and tart lime was interesting.

Each summer Bayless' chefs take a one-week reprieve from the restaurant to go on a work-related, culinary research excursion. This year they made it down to the Yucatan--where the cosmopolitan cuisine takes notes from both Mexican and Western influences--and came back with an amendment of especialidades for the menu.

For JH and I, this meant a traditional achiote grilled fish or Pescado Tikin Xik ($17), served with a roasted tomato-habanero salsa, Mexican rice, and pea tendrils. Warm corn tortillas were brought on the side.

Achiote paste is a common marinade found in Yucatean cuisine and is a combination of annatto (what gives it its fiery red color), cumin, oregano, garlic, pepper, cloves, cinnamon, and allspice. The banana-leaf grilling method led to an incredibly moist and succulent filet of mahi mahi, while the achiote rub gave it a deep smoke and pepperiness.

There was added heat from the habanero in the salsa, while the acidity in the tomatoes cooled it all down. The Mexican rice was aromatic with notes of ancho chile powder and the pea tendrils was crisp and lightly dressedThe dish was both my friend and foe--enraging my taste buds at first and soothing them after.

Pescado Tikin Xik

Though I would have liked for the flan to be creamier, I was impressed by the infusion of lime and dragon fruit that really sang from within the layers of egg, milk, and sugar in the Flan de Pitaya ($7.50). The raspberry-guanabana salsa took the pucker out of tart and left only a fresh sweetness to awaken the taste buds.

The restaurant was packed for a 2pm lunch seating and with its vibrant food and festive atmosphere, I can certainly see why.

Frontera Grill
445 North Clark Street
Chicago, IL 60610


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