January 12, 2006

hero worship

C is in town again this week, and last night we went to Frontera Grill. I was pretty excited to try it out at dinner time, and it didn't disappoint. We had to wait for a table, of course, but a) C & I only just met and see each other like once a month, we had plenty to talk about, and b) Frontera has the best fucking cocktails in Chicago as far as I can tell, so this was not a problem. The mezcal margarita is pretty rockin', and I got the barkeep to show C the little laminated mezcal-info thingy, and C had a pretty great super-tart no-frills margarita, so yum.

One of the things I enjoy about C is his habit of ordering two starter courses, followed by a course of mains, and we did this again last night. First in line, a trio of ceviches: one tomatoey and reminiscent of my favorite treat at Maxwell Street Market, one limey and light and full of squid and shrimp, and one, our favorite, also limey and tangy but more assertive, and full of halibut -- ceviche fronterizo. We'll totally get the single order of this one next time.

Then we had sopes de chilorio, crispy little masa cups with soft pork flavored with toasted orange peel and ancho, which i loved but C found a little too spicy and a little too reminiscent of his detested winter squash, at which point i had a minor giggle at his expense. :-) Also we got a huarache de barbacoa, which totally rocked the house: a perfect blend of corn base, smear of bean, and soft moist goat, topped with a little old cheese and a tangle of radish and pea shoots.

We'd ordered a Gigondes (woo, yay me, remembering the name of the wine without writing it down on an envelope even!), which went awesome with the barbacoa but fought with the spicy pork. C had a great conversation (several conversations, really) with the sommelier, who was really cool, helpful, friendly and knowledgeable. During the course of one of these conversations, I happened to mention that Rick Bayless is my hero and I think he is so excellently nerdy about his food -- so she went in the back and sent him out. Yikes! So last night in the middle of my dinner, I shook Rick Bayless's hand and told him some mangled foolishness about how great I think his stuff is. C pointed out later that what I should have said was that when he took on Bobby Flay in Iron Chef America, and lost to him by one point of plating, he was ROBBED -- Bayless totally spanked Flay in that battle. Flay's plating is so irritatingly late-80s NYC southwestern, and Bayless's dishes in the battle were straight-up brilliant in concept, execution, and look, without any flouncy flourishy bullshit. But I am lame and failed to do so. :-)

Anyway, after Senor Bayless was gracious enough to spend a couple of minutes with his adoring public, we moved on to mains. I had smoked duck breast in a delicata-squash/ancho sauce, with roasted green beans and more duck rolled in a soft masa polenta-ish stuff and sliced. This masa/duck thing, whatever its official name is, was totally the star of the show -- YUM. C had a green pork posole, which was delicious but much much lighter than either of us were expecting. He felt he probably should have ordered a different wine, though the one we had worked well enough. C may have to henceforward be referred to as WineNerd in this blog. Hee hee hee!

We got the mezcal-spiked hot chocolate, which WineNerd enjoyed as much as I was hoping he would, even though it wasn't as strong as the one I had last time. And we had blueberry-tequila and nectarine-brandy ice creams, with hot cajeta sauce (goat milk caramel, clearly homemade with cinnamon & vanilla in there dancing around with the goatiness). And as we were leaving, the sommelier came by with little food-wine-pairing pamphlets they'd made up to help people learn how to match wine with Mexican food, which was supercool.

The food is always foremost in my evaluation of a restaurant, and Frontera totally makes the grade. But it's the geeky devotion of one man and his love of fresh food and Mexican cooking that shines brightest at this place -- how many celebrity chefs do YOU know who are in their first restaurant's kitchen most nights? -- and makes me love it even more.

Posted by foodnerd at January 12, 2006 12:51 PM

My own inclination had been to order a Loire Valley red—there was a Chinon that looked reasonable. I was thinking good acidity, nothing too complex or fancy that's going to be blown away by the spiciness, and sufficient weight to handle the pozole and the duck. The sommelier (was it Jill or Jane? Jill, I think) did NOT agree with my choice. The Gigondas (Guigal 2001) was her idea, and I pressed her on it: it seemed to lush. No, no, she said, so I trusted her. It turns out she was more right than wrong. As FoodNerd wrote, the sopes obliterated the wine. I think the Chinon would've been better, but J said (in a later conversation) that my instinct is wrong, what we want is a big, high alcohol, super-extracted wine—a California zinfandel or a new world Syrah. I can almost imagine that working, but that's not really the kind of wine I like. Maybe that wouldn't be true if I ate more chiles.

Anyway, J was great, and she gave me a lot to think about. If I had it to do all over again, I'd try an Alsatian riesling, I think. Weird with the barbacoa, better (I'm guessing) with the sopes, ok with the ceviche, good with the duck and great with the pozole. J, given her choice, would've sold us half-bottles, I think. Zinfandel and riesling or a new-world pinot noir.

Anyway, FN, a lovely meal and great company. See you in February or March!


Posted by: C at January 12, 2006 02:57 PM

Have never been to Frontera- but would strongly recommend an OLD VINE ZIN- like Gnarly Head(vine)- yum- try it even if you are not at Frontera:)

Posted by: jgro at January 12, 2006 09:59 PM

hey gro! how are you? nice to hear your voice -- it reminds me that you and WineNerd would totally get along. Maybe someday all 3 of us will be in the same city and can have wine & cheese together. That would be cool. :-)

Posted by: foodnerd at January 13, 2006 10:55 AM

Dang man, you totally wrote that and it was long an junk. Congrats!

I'm a big fan of the Bayless too. I'm really glad to hear he's still working in the kitchen, keeps your skill set sharp and pointy.


Posted by: Dr. Biggles at January 14, 2006 02:21 PM

Gro -- as it happens, I had the Crauford "Kilt Lifter" Zinfandel (Napa) at Custom House the night after Frontera. It was good--less jammy than most zins I've had and plenty interesting. It was a good match with the triple-dose of lamb (chop, shoulder & saussage with cannellini beans). Still, it's not really what I'm "in to" just now.

Custom House was really, really good, by the way. Better than Spring and Green Zebra, I think, by my usual measurement of these things (that being my eagerness to make another visit). Also, it was a bit more dear. Isn't that just the way of things?

(resisting WineNerd, as much as I'm flattered by it, because I am about one tenth as knowledgable about wine as FoodNerd is about food)

Posted by: C at January 14, 2006 05:35 PM

I interviewed Rick Bayless for a story I'm writing on sustainable food, and I told him that in Flay vs. Bayless, he was TOTALLY robbed. He giggled.

Posted by: mary at June 5, 2006 08:34 PM
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